Martin Johnson: Former rugby players could offer tackling advice to NFL


In an exclusive interview with, Leicester Tigers and England legend Martin Johnson has suggested that a host of former rugby players could offer tackling advice to NFL teams in the future.

England’s former Rugby World Cup-winning captain and head coach believes more NFL clubs could follow the lead of the Seattle Seahawks, who have been working with Fijian rugby sevens star Waisale Serevi on ‘taking the head out of the game’ when tackling.

Johnson’s comments and the Seahawks’ use of a former rugby sensation come at a time of heightened awareness of head injuries in the NFL, particularly after the recent and shocking retirement of San Francisco 49ers 24-year-old linebacker Chris Borland, who cited long-term health concerns over concussions as a reason for hanging up his helmet and shoulder pads.

Johnson said:

“The Chris Borland story is big. He is a bright, young and very sensible bloke who has said, ‘Hang on.’ The problem of head injuries and concussions is a prominent issue for the NFL that has been building for years.

“It depends if it becomes the vogue but I can see a glut of former rugby players offering themselves up as tackling gurus to the NFL and college game. I think in the world we live in now, every team will want to be seen to do the right thing and I think the NFL teams will consider getting rugby guys in.”

So as an uncompromising and hugely successful player who made his fair share of tackles during his glittering career, would Johnson consider offering his services to one of the 32 teams that make up the NFL?

Johnson, who won 84 caps for England from 1993-2003, replied:

“I would always offer my knowledge to NFL teams if they want to talk to me about tackling. I’m not saying I’m any sort of guru but I would be willing to talk to them if any of the NFL teams were interested. It’s very real from now on with that Borland news, if it wasn’t already.”

In addition to a professional career that saw him regarded as one of the greatest rugby players in the history of the sport, Johnson also played American football for the Leicester Panthers junior team and is well placed to speak about the differences in tackling in the two sports.

“The general principles are the same,” Johnson explained.

“You bring the guy to the ground as quickly as possible and knock him backwards if possible. That is the same in both sports. It is a different mind-set in the NFL. The first thing you learn in rugby is head protection. Getting your head to the near side and then wrapping the arms. In the NFL, they often look for the big hit first and that makes you miss a lot.

“When you teach kids how to play rugby, the first thing you do before you have any form of contact is to get their head out of the way. You’ll see kids run into people with their heads down and that’s a very short career because you’re going to hurt your neck and your head. You’ve got to get your head out of the way and then you can still get a good hit on somebody. You’re aiming with your head to brush your ear down his hip, then it’s about gripping and driving through with your legs.

“When I played American football when I was younger, it was very aggressive in terms of hitting and the head was involved a lot of the time. People would say, ‘Well, you have a helmet on.’ But I would counter by saying that we were being hit by somebody with a helmet on as well. I got more head knocks playing American football than I did in rugby when I was younger.”

Prior to working with Serevi, the Seahawks were well aware of the need to tackle with good fundamentals and with the head to the side of the ball-carrier as head coach Pete Carroll released a training video that was inspired by tackling in rugby.

Johnson said:

“I think it is very rare for American sport to look outside of American sport so for them to look at another sport and for Pete Carroll to show videos of rugby, that makes you say, ‘Oh, okay, that’s interesting.’ I’ve seen the Seattle guys training without helmets at times and that’s great because then you really do have to think about your head and your technique, because you have to get that technique right.”

Johnson served as England head coach from 2008-2011 and, like his counterparts in the NFL, recognised the difficulty of practising tackling at full speed.

“When I was coaching England or playing for England I found that it’s hard to go live and go full contact because there is a risk associated with that and you don’t want to get people injured in training,” Johnson explained. “But with Phil Larder, who instigated a modern defensive system in English rugby, we would do a lot of work on tackling technique and a lot of it would be on bags and you would build up your speed. You wouldn’t go at 100 miles per hour but you would go over fundamentals all the time.

“I have read some articles that suggest that because NFL teams are so into their defensive schemes, they don’t always focus on the fundamentals of the tackle. It’s something you need to practice all the time. Like any skill, it’s something that has to be practised to the point where it becomes instinctive. The more comfortable you become at doing something, the more instinctive you can become. Practice re-affirms those motor skills required to make a tackle and promotes that muscle memory.”

Even though Serevi built a reputation as more of an attacking force in world rugby and was not necessarily a ferocious hitter, he is offering tackling advice to one of the best defensive teams in the NFL in the Seahawks. Johnson feels other rugby legends could fulfil a similar role, especially those who were strong in the tackle.

The former British and Irish Lions skipper concluded:

“Guys like Neil Back and Richard Hill were just fantastic tacklers and they made all sorts of tackles – close-in tackles, open field tackles, tackles against bigger guys and tackles against smaller guys. Joe Worsley was also a very, very good tackler. Back row guys are very effective.”

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