SAQ Fast Feet

Rugby Speed Training

Rugby games are won on Speed. Everybody admires the players who can side step and swerve through a defensive line. Even more important nowadays with the tight defensive patterns is this ability to escape a tackle by changing direction at the last minute. Or what about these 50/50 situations where reaction determines who gets the ball. Yes, talent and a natural athlete can do this, but fortunately we can train our players in this too. You have to create a stimulating mix of fitness exercises to achieve this. Cross-over's from athletics and other sports proved to be very successful. Innovative coaches improved the fitness of their players dramatically.

Another trend was the enormous improvement in defensive systems, the influence of Rugby League in both players and coaches was very successful too. (RL fans will say they were already years ahead........)

So, there you have very fit and strong players and a tight defensive: how to score? For me the semi-final Aus - NZ in 2003 was a turning point: a hard fought battle over inches, hard hitting forwards, it ended in nothing.

Speed training and more

So what was the next step?

Be agile and fast! Increase the mobility of players to give them an offload in the tackle option. SAQ® training is designed to develop this. Within the term 'Speed, Agility and Quickness' is included:

  • Reaction time & Speed of thought
  • Acceleration over the first 20 to 40m
  • Change direction in a blink
  • Hold top pace and change pace
  • Change direction off either foot and on full speed
  • Speed of pass, handling
  • Speed endurance, which is the ability to sprint repeatedly

There was a sudden interest in the development of the players mobility and their speed. Some facts:

  • Speed is essential, but mostly for the first 5 meters
  • Coordination runs we know from athletics only partly work because we hardly run straight

Based on his experiences and knowledge, Alan Pearson, founder of SAQ®, turned it into a cohesive program targeted for rugby players. I think the program is very good, dynamic warming-up, interesting coordination drills and easily integrated into the rest of the rugby training. You can follow a 1-day course to learn all the ins & outs of the program. Also there is lots of equipment to help you develop SAQ® for your team.

I did the SAQ® i-Diploma, you can do this online, the advantage is you can run this at your own pace. Develop material and get feedback on the work with your own team. 

Background on speed training for rugby

Improvement of Speed, Agility and Quickness is based on training the nervous system AND your muscles. the elements are:

These elements make up the SAQ CONTINUUM(TM) and are described in more detail:

SAQ Dynamic Flexibility Warm-Up

Moving the body while elongating muscles not only warms and stretches, it also provides an excellent place to teach balance and co-ordination. Examples include: walks, runs, skips, twists and standing motions that resemble the ballet dancer's motions. I always include ankle flexing, improving the use of the ankle in sprinting (jogging on heel - toes - ankle flexing).

No static stretching anymore, no prove of it effectiveness in warm-up has been found.

SAQ Running Mechanics

Co-ordination and programmed agility are done through light plyometrics, zigzagging through a row of markers, little shuttle runs, picking up the ball, head-roll and other similar exercises.
The emphasis here is on teaching bio-mechanically sound movements to develop all the motor skills the body needs to make high frequency movements possible.

Important is to develop correct technique first, increase speed of movement later.

SAQ Innervation (Activation of the neural pathways)

This transition from warm-up to high-demand periods of work is characterized by footwork drills for co-ordination, such as the Fast foot ladder, dance-like foot patterns, or read-and-react tennis ball drills.

SAQ Accumulation of potential

This is the "conditioning" time of practice and programmed agility, but in very controlled quantities and manner. The potential for injury is high if you mix fatigue with high quantities of drills and prolonged elapsed time of direction change. Rugby obstacle course runs are great for varied stimuli movements. I run this in pairs, throw a ball, zigzag, hit a tackle back, score. (You get the idea...)

SAQ Explosion

At this stage, where programmable and random agility is trained, work is done with medicine ball throws, high-quality plyometrics jumping over SAQ hurdes, or just plain tackle bags and contact shields, and short speed bursts. Tennis ball drop and recovery drills, and resistance running either by players holding each others shirts, sprint harnesses and downhill running. I have invested in SAQ bungees, they work great, players enjoy it. Or over speed running, downhill are all part of the Explosion phase.

Look at the intensity of this work-out: this is the place for fast action, but not tongue-hanging-out fatigue.

SAQ Expression of potential

This stage is quite short in duration but all important. Ample rest is essential. Here the athlete applies the day's menu of skill into high quality rugby movements. Short, high intensity games with room to maneuver work well. Create the space by controlling the defence and launch the attackers by feeding the ball in the correct place and space. In this way, the players walks off the practice field with a sense of exhilaration at having moved in a fast and controlled manner.

How did I use SAQ for my team?

Remember that I coached an under 17 team and trained only 3 hours a week. The mobility work was an integral part but I do not have the time to do all the detail of the SAQ®. I use ladder and hurdles, the resistance equipment I only brought in the winter period when we worked indoors and had more time. Did it work - look at some of the action of the players below......

(Cameron by Bob Ravelli)

I use SAQ® programs in the warmup stage in all my training sessions and pre-match routine. 

Dynamic Flexibility Warm-Up for 10 minutes. I have my team jog up-and-down between the goal -and dead ball line. The SAQ® warm-up looks complicated at first, but I tried it with my team and I found that after a couple of times it will become routine and fun to carry out. And yes - this warm-up does enhance flexibility, just as traditional static stretching would. I use these warming up drills every session and the same before each match.

The Mechanics of running, leg and arm speed, plyometrics, I believe in all the stuff. The movement of arms though is totally different that track athletes: running with a ball, lateral movement of the body, if you look at the top players their arms are everywhere. This is good, I never believed in the running with the arms reaching for the ball.

I use an relay format to create a fun atmosphere during the Innervation phase. During this it is important for me to focus the players on the proper technique.

(Angelo breaks by Bob Ravelli)

Accumulation of potential is the controlled environment where technique can be displayed. How much control? This where you have to pay attention to the players performing the drill if they still have time to concentrate on the proper technique. This is where start using the fast foot ladders in my regular exercises. Like the 2 vs 1 I now have players sprint to a cone, go over the ladders, feed the ball and rugby!

Explosion is a part of the training what players like. I use hurdles, tackle bags and contact shields to do all kinds of power work. Remember, do not work-out with fatigued players or the result will be lost. Count the number of jumps you have the players perform, this is where you can control the load during the season.

With Expression of potential phase I still have difficulty. This is where we play rugby. I try to have my exercises as much game related as possible so I guess this is okay. I do not work my team to a high lactate level anyway.

(Bruis steps out of a tackle, photo by Bob Ravelli)
(Marvin looks for attack. photo by Bob Ravelli)

SAQ and the National Under 18

For the National Under 18, I used SAQ® programs as a warm-up stage in all my training sessions and pre-match routine. Players liked it, great fun when two of the Front Row players performed a very complicated fast foot drill without a fault! (They were part of my talent group when I did my i-Diploma work....).

In the last month leading up to the European Championships I did even more SAQ® work, wanted to focus on fast movement and have the players experience the speed sensation. I used the bungees to launch players rather then resistance work.

The all important question: is it worth the time? Do you need to focus more on scrum, line-out, etc.? Look at it from this tactical perspective: how to dominate play at the tackle line?

  • Step 1: Evade,
  • Step 2: Dominate contact (Offload or retain/post)
  • Step 3: Quick ball

I think it is important and part of the success of the Dutch National Under 18 who became proud winners of Pool B at the FIRA-AER Championships 2013!

SAQ Equipment

Then on all the SAQ® equipment: the idea is the feedback the player receives when doing the exercises, his foot stepping on a ladder, feeling the hurdle when he does not raise his foot high enough.

We bought two sets of fast foot ladders, we already had cones and I used the hit shields for hurdles. I later had the opportunity to try all the other stuff and would definitely advise to work with hurdles. If your club has the money for flexicords and chutes then go for it, make it a regular thing.

Even more feedback is provided by this flexicords or bungee cords. Use them as resistance but I really like the other use where I sprint away from a player putting pressure on the bungee cord, the player can then explode and feel how fast he can really run. This is a great experience for the players!


My Rotterdam Under 18 team won the 2004 National Championship 23-19 in the last minutes of the final. We would never had the result if we did not have the focus on the players individual development. SAQ fits this approach beautifully.

My National Under 18 won the Final in Pool B at the European championships 2013, beating big Lithuanians, Ukrainians and Croats at the tackle line all the time. In three matches we scored 199 points! Most of all 24 teams in the tournament.

Yes, I think the SAQ® program is a good aid, because it makes the mobility and speed work easily accessible for us coaches. Buy the book and video, buy a set of fast foot ladders plus hurdles and see how it works for you and then decide on the others stuff.

You want to do even more? Only then you need the help of specialist trainers. 

More information

  • Try to get hold on training videos for athletics. They are very useful in getting coordination drills. Disadvantage is of course that sprinters run in a straight line and do not have to carry a ball ! The movement of arms are different in rugby, we need them to keep your balance so they are all over the place. You can download a free paper on the differences in running styles between 100m track&field athletes and rugby players.
  • How does this SAQ® program relate to other fitness aspects? Read here.
  • For more info download McLean's paper.  There you will find what kind speed training to include in your training session. These are also included in my training builder Excel spreadsheet.
  • Visit SAQ® International website.
  • A piece with a selection of running technique drills I use either in my Mechanics or Dynamic Flex phase of the training.

SAQ Equipment