Few players carry the ball as powerfully as Jake Polledri, as he showed in the derby defeat of Bath. The Gloucester and Italy back-row explains the key elements of his art
Jake Polledri on how to be a top ball-carrier
Gloucester’s 29-15 defeat of Bath in the Gallagher Premiership was founded in part on an irresistible performance by Jake Polledri. Named Man of the Match, the back-row made 11 runs for 68 metres to consolidate his reputation as one of the best ball-carriers in the game.
BT Sport commentator Alastair Eykyn highlighted Polledri’s “freakish power” while pundit Ben Kay said: “There’s no one better at staying on his feet than him. He’s one of the most balanced runners I’ve ever seen.”
It was business as usual for Italy international Polledri, who earlier this season beat 14 defenders against Canada in Japan – a Rugby World Cup match record by a forward.
Rugby World spoke to Polledri about ball-carrying for a Pro Insight article published in our January 2020 issue. Here’s an extended version of that piece…
RW: What are the key issues when carrying the ball?
JP: “For me it’s footwork and power. At Gloucester we do a speed and evasion drill, changes of direction, before most sessions as part of a warm-up. You don’t want to run straight into someone, you’d rather run at arms and spaces. And after you step and you’re in that space, you want the power to push off and accelerate through the gap.”
RW: Leg drive must be integral to that?
JP: “Never die with the ball. You’re constantly driving through and you’re not tackled until you hit the floor. That’s a big part of my game personally. I like to think I’ve got quite a good leg drive; it’s having that explosive power.”
RW: How about body angle?
JP: “You want to be square and straight. I’ve done some sprint training when I was younger and had a coach who used to say if your angles are all over the place then you’re wasting energy and power off to the side. You want everything running straight, with your whole bodyweight through it.
“In terms of height, there are two different carries. Carries near your own line, or near the opposition line, tend to be to set up the play and because you don’t want to get held up you drop a bit lower.
“But 80-90% of the time you’re running a normal ball carry so I like to be almost in a squat position, so you can really push off using the most powerful muscles.”
RW: Your fend is a powerful weapon in your armoury…
JP: “A lot of people just try to use their arms but when fending it’s the same principle as a boxing punch. Using your bodyweight and your feet will generate a lot more power than if you’re just using your arms.”
RW: How about the offload?
JP: “The two main triggers for the offload are communication and the type of carry you’ve done. If you hear a support player, you know an offload could be on regardless of what happens in the contact. If it’s a dominant ball carry, like we see Sonny Bill Williams do so often, the offload tends to be more on.
“But if you make a dominant carry you’ve still got to weigh up whether to throw the offload; there’s nothing worse than making a good break or carry and then throwing it out the back and losing the ball.
“So it’s a tough decision-making process for the player but also a good skill. It’s amazing to see these professionals, the people we’re around, executing these types of skills because it takes an amazing amount of decision-making in a very short space of time.”
RW: Do you need a special mindset to be a major ball-carrier?
JP: “If you know you’re the target man, it takes a bit of mental strength. But if they’re going to put more men on me, there will be space elsewhere. That’s how I look at it. I hope to show the skills of rugby – offload, pass before the contact, run dummy lines – so that they bite in and it creates space for others.”
RW: What are the key rules if you do get tackled?
JP: “Usually the first tackler will go low and the second guy in will try to rip the ball or make a shot on it. So the first thing is to make sure you’re holding the ball strong so it doesn’t spill.
“Second, hit the deck in a positive, dominant way. You want to fall beyond the tackle because if you get hit back you leave the ball in an awkward position for your team-mates. That’s when it leaves the open space for a jackler.
“Then if you can, get a little roll in, make it difficult for a jackler. And after that you’ve got to present the ball as long as possible and keep your hands on it for the nine to play away. Obviously you’ve got your team-mates flying in who could accidentally kick the ball, and that can cause a turnover as well.”
RW: How much carrying do you do in training?
JP: “I do a few extras on my own but as a team we do focus on that. For example, in one drill you start on the cones and have two guys on assisted bands who are pulling you back, and you’ve got to run between two tackle shields, simulating the tackle.
“So you practise that leg drive, you’re getting that strength training and developing power, in the hope that in games you feel like you’re doing that drill but without someone pulling you back. It’s all about muscle memory. When we do it in training and then on the field you know you’re going to cope, you’re going to be stronger. That’s a drill we do regularly.”
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