The NFL and Rugby, on Common Ground
BY MICHAEL McKNIGHT
Stephen Paea was born in New Zealand and grew up playing rugby in Tonga, so when the Chicago Bears defensive tackle got the chance last week to hang out with Keven Mealamu of New Zealand’s reigning World Cup champion rugby team, the All Blacks, Paea, 26, became a 300-pound fanboy. Mealamu, 35, was in Chicago in advance of a match against the U.S. national team at Soldier Field on Nov. 1. (The All Blacks, who have won an astounding 76 percent of their matches over their 130-year history, trounced the Eagles, 74-6.) Mealamu has played in 121 matches for New Zealand, second-most all time, and has sweated through nearly that many Ravens games as one of Baltimore’s most devoted overseas fans, so he was equally excited to sit down with an NFL player to watch tape of the All Blacks’ recent win over Argentina while discussing the similarities and differences between football and its purer ancestor.
THE MMQB: What are the main differences between international rugby and the NFL?
MEALAMU: The speed that it’s played at. Obviously, for us, the ball’s in play for a lot longer, so there’s probably a bit more endurance involved. Whereas the NFL, it’s so explosive. All plays are maximal effort. In rugby—I wouldn’t say you’re not working hard, but it’s not at the same explosive intensity as the NFL.
PAEA: Rugby’s harder. If you have the ball and lose possession, automatically you’re playing defense. There’s no jogging off the field so the defense can come in. Like Keven said, in football you put your maximum effort into every play, for 5, 7 seconds or whatever it is, and then you have 40 seconds to recover.
THE MMQB: But is the NFL becoming more rugby-like, with all of these fast, no-huddle offenses? Those 40 seconds sometimes become 25.
PAEA: And sometimes less than that. When we played Philadelphia, when they went out of bounds they would run the ball back to the official while the offensive linemen ran up to the line [for the next play]. So that 40 seconds is sometimes 15 seconds. But still it’s not the same [as rugby]. The only time the ball is stopped in rugby is when it’s a penalty or out of bounds.
MEALAMU: The basics of our jobs are quite similar, except we run with the ball and we have to make tackles. But I have so much respect for what these guys do [in the NFL]. I’ve seen their work in the trenches. It’s not easy.
PAEA: The way I explained it to my dad—because he is all rugby, he never followed football—I said football is a rugby scrum every play. Every minute or so there’s a scrum. And sometimes in the trenches it’s 1-on-2, where I take on two guys who are bigger than me. Like Keven said, everyone has a role, and my role is to take on double teams and get after the quarterback.
THE MMQB: (to Mealamu) How were you trained to tackle? How does one execute a proper rugby tackle?
MEALAMU: We have to do quite a bit of tracking work first, following a player while he is coming forward, a guy who is possibly quicker than you. So a lot of our tackling depends on proper footwork, to set up a good shoulder tackle. In rugby you’re taught to put your head on the [ball carrier’s] right side and get a good shoulder on them, which also helps from a safety point of view.
THE MMQB: Stephen, how do you get guys on the ground?
PAEA: I learned to tackle from rugby. One of the weakest parts of your body is your neck. I was taught that early. I learned to lead with the same shoulder as my forward foot. That came from rugby. I learned that if you take big strides the runner can go either way and get past you, but if you take short steps and lower your center of gravity, you can make the play.
THE MMQB: (to Mealamu) Have you ever wondered what it would be like to play while wearing a helmet?
MEALAMU: I couldn’t imagine it, to be honest. Having no helmet, it helps your vision. You feel a little more aware of what’s around you because you can see more.
PAEA: The first time I ever put a helmet on, in high school, the first thing I noticed is the lack of vision. Wearing a helmet is like wearing binoculars. But the good part is, you can use your head, you can headbutt. When I take on blocks I use my head first, to shock them, sting them. But yeah, the first thing I noticed wasn’t the weight or the feel of the helmet, but the vision.
THE MMQB: Does the modern NFL game place more value on the big hit as opposed to the perfect form tackle? A rugby tackle?
PAEA: Some of the big hits come from the receiver looking at the ball instead of the defender, so part of it is the vision we’re talking about. The helmet.
MEALAMU: Secure tackling is so important in rugby because it’s all about winning that gain line. Making a dominant tackle doesn’t mean play has stopped… if they’re able to recycle the ball then it’s still in play and we have to keep on tackling. We’re trying to get the ball back and go on offense again. It always feels like you’ve got more energy when you have the ball. [Both laugh.]
THE MMQB: Is that one of the reasons you admire Ray Lewis and the Ravens? Their reputation for quality tackling?
MEALAMU: Yeah, just watching their defenses—the way they make big explosive tackles and also execute the more technical one-on-one tackles. I have a lot of appreciation for what they do.
THE MMQB: (to Paea) Do you miss playing rugby?
PAEA: Sure, I miss the sport, but one thing I don’t miss is all the running. [Both laugh.] I remember there was a lot of running.
THE MMQB: (to Mealamu) How can rugby grow here?
MEALAMU: I think it’s having games like this [NZ vs. USA], getting people watching, giving them a better understanding, because it’s quite a hard sport to pick up if you’re just watching casually. I think with more education, [Americans] would enjoy it. The ball is constantly in play. There’s always something happening in rugby.
PAEA: The business part of it—I think that’s why football is what it is here in America. All the breaks and commercials. Just watching this [New Zealand vs. Argentina] game right now, there are no commercials. The commercials are the signs on the sideline. In the NFL, Super Bowl commercials cost millions and millions of dollars. There’s not that opportunity in rugby because the play is always going.
THE MMQB: What NFL players would make good rugby players?
MEALAMU: I think most linebackers.
MEALAMU: You could use them as loose forwards. Guys who tackle a lot but can also carry the ball and are well-rounded athletes. And even some of the big men like Steve. He’d be a great scrummager, and he also has a background of carrying the ball, so I’d love to see him back playing rugby.
THE MMQB: (to Paea) What was your favorite moment carrying the ball as a rugby player?
PAEA: I played in high school [in Utah], and no one knew how to tackle. I was the biggest guy out there and for some reason they would try to tackle me up high, so I would literally end up carrying three guys, four guys, dragging them 30 meters. [Both laugh]
THE MMQB: (to Mealamu) Are head injuries a concern for you?
MEALAMU: Yep. Not every tackle is going to be perfect so if you get your head in the wrong place--
PAEA: Have you ever had a concussion?
MEALAMU: Yeah, I’ve had concussions. Thankfully not too many in my career. Must mean I tackle properly. [Laughs]
THE MMQB: (to Paea) By the way, how are the triplets? [Paea’s wife, Susannah, gave birth to two sons and a daughter last summer.]
PAEA: The big one is a bully. He’s like me, body-wise. He’ll just come in and go like this [pushing Mealamu aside] or just hit the other two in the face.
MEALAMU: Sounds like a rugby player. [all laugh] Sorry, but I’ve gotta run. I’ve got a team meeting in 10 minutes.
PAEA: Do you guys get fined if you’re late?
PAEA: There’s another way we’re similar! [All laugh.]
[widget widget_name="SI Newsletter Widget”]