Growing up in the United Kingdom, at some point in your life at school you will have been told to play football or rugby, or even both. They are two of the most popular sports in the UK, but they are quite different – and as a result, there are a lot of jokes made by one at the expense of the other. One levelled at football from rugby would be that in comparison it is rather wimpy. But when you look at it, there is a fair bit of overlap in the required skills, and there are actually a few footballers who could do well in rugby in my opinion, as this starting XV below demonstrates.
Don’t get me wrong, some of these guys will have to think twice about theatrics before they get smashed by a Courtney Lawes tackle. And yes, most of them would need to hit the gym hard in order to survive… But it is possible, and these guys definitely have transferable skills that could potentially have made them, not just good, but even great rugby players had their lives gone down a different sporting path.
Full-Back: Cristiano Ronaldo
For all his ego and theatrics, when he is a team player Ronaldo has all the skills that would make an excellent full-back. He is a fast runner, and is strong and powerful enough to avoid getting clattered by opponents. Plus I can easily imagine him running into the back-line regularly to hog the try scoring glory. What’s more, he is one of the best footballers there is in the air, so he is ideally suited to the role of a full-back: having to deal with catching a lot of high kicks. What’s more, his skills in dead ball free-kick situations make him a good choice for the kicking duties if the team, like Welsh full-back Leigh Halfpenny.
Close calls: Steven Gerrard
Rugby player he kind of reminds me of: Leigh Halfpenny (Wales)
Right Wing: Dele Alli
For all the wingers in football, it may come as a surprise to pick this upcoming Spurs sensation. But it is hard to argue when the current head coach of the England rugby team identified Dele Alli as someone who could’ve been a great rugby player. Furthermore he used to play at school level on the wing, a position he is said to have excelled in. Like New Zealand’s Nehe Milner-Skudder in 2015, he has been fast-tracked in the space of a few seasons after catching everyone’s eye with his performances. Milner-Skudder finished 2015 scoring in the Rugby World Cup final, how will Alli fare at the 2018 football World Cup? With an eye for both scoring and setting up team-mates, the tall and agile Alli is a good side-stepping runner who’s not afraid of getting stuck in – so rugby may well have been a good path for him too. Some people are just good at sport.
Close calls: Riyad Mahrez
Rugby player he kind of reminds me of: Nehe Milner-Skudder (New Zealand)
Outside Centre: Moussa Dembélé
Initially I was looking at players similar to England rugby centre Henry Slade; intelligent with a good reading of the game like Lampard or Müller. But in the modern rugby game a centre also needs to be powerful and abrasive, like the long-running Welsh partnership of Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies. And I realised that Moussa Dembélé has both the intelligence and the strength – you rarely see him lose the ball, because he’s just so powerful. He’s a bully on the ball, but also very clever and dynamic when on the run, and with his strong left foot for kicks through I can imagine him playing in a Davies-esque way. Do you reckon the Lions would pick Belgian players in future? Because there are are more of them coming up…
Close calls: Frank Lampard, Thomas Müller
Rugby player he kind of reminds me of: Jonathan Davies (Wales)
Inside Centre: Romelu Lukaku
This was a tricky one – if anyone has the confidence to believe that he could play rugby, it’s Zlatan. He even took on the caveman himself, Sebastian Chabal – perhaps he would thrive in the inside centre with the huge kicking game and arrogance reminiscent of Welsh rugby player, Gavin Henson. The problem is for all these attributes, I don’t know if Zlatan is fast enough – like legitimately I don’t know, I’m not even sure I’ve ever seen him sprint before (granted, in football he hasn’t needed to). So who else? Well, I remembered the goal that Romelu Lukaku scored against Chelsea in the FA Cup for Everton – he knocked away players like they were children. He would run through defences like a battering ram for fun, and thus would be a great asset to a back-line.
Close call: Zlatan Ibrahimović
Rugby player he kind of reminds me of: Manu Tuilagi (England)
Left Wing: Gareth Bale
This one was a no brainer – Bale comes from a rugby loving country, and has actively shown his support for the Welsh rugby team in the past. He even played football at school with the former Wales rugby captain, Sam Warburton, and Bale played rugby in his youth. The 18-year-old version of him would have been snapped like a twig had he stepped into a professional rugby game, but Bale has since become far more of a physical presence, matching even Ronaldo for strength. But his biggest attribute is his pace: he is lightning fast with an eye for glory, so shoving this world class footballing left winger on the left wing for rugby makes all the sense in the world.
Rugby player he kind of reminds me of: George North (Wales)
Fly-Half: Andrea Pirlo
In rugby your fly-half is your play-maker, he gets the ball moving and the back line flowing. What better play-maker to choose than the Italian magician that is Andrea Pirlo? His confidence on the ball would be hugely useful; he seems so relaxed that the pressure of big forwards running to tackle him just wouldn’t phase him. He could get a back-line ticking along nicely in attack, and with an intelligent tactical kicking game he’d drive opponents nuts in Ronan O’Gara-esque fashion – just replace through balls with long kicks and you’ve got the idea. He knows exactly where to put the ball and when, all while making it look easy, which will take the pressure off the rest of the team when they see their fly-half smoothly controlling the game like this. I’m imagining Bastian Schweinsteiger as a nice solid alternative to close the game out, the Owen Farrell to the more attacking George Ford if you’re looking at the current England rugby fly-half options. And David Beckham can certainly kick so he might be a good luxury option; he even got some training from Jonny Wilkinson once…
Close calls: Bastian Schweinsteiger, David Beckham
Rugby player he kind of reminds me of: Quade Cooper (Australia)
Scrum-Half: Alexis Sanchez
Now I’m a big rugby fan, but something that football certainly has over rugby… is that with football there isn’t so much emphasis on needing to be a giant that would put Bane to shame in order to succeed. Generally speaking in this rugby team I’ve gone for taller and stronger footballers, but in the rugby scrum-half position there is a bit more flexibility. Generally speaking this position is for someone smaller; for example current England scrum-half Danny Care is 5’9. Care himself actually played football for Sheffield Wednesday U-15’s with Jamie Vardy when they were at the academy together, and funnily enough Danny Care was told at the time that he was too short for playing football… He proceeded become an England international who has been capped 58 times so far. Alexis Sanchez is 2 inches shorter than Danny Care, but he has all the attributes of a good scrum-half: he is a good kicker, he is quick, tenacious and when required he is strong. Combine that with an eye for scoring and the ability to kick from a dead ball situation if required… I think with a bit of gym work (and protection with the bigger guys in the forwards *cough* Yaya Touré), Sanchez could thrive in this position where he would see a lot of the ball.
Close calls: Lionel Messi, Sergio Agüero
Rugby player he kind of reminds me of: Maxime Machenaud (France)
Prop: Adebayo Akinfenwa
Akinfenwa is a funny one because more than anyone else in this team, he legitimately looks more like a rugby player than he does a footballer. He became well known after scoring for AFC Wimbledon against Liverpool in an FA Cup match in 2015, and is unforgettable for his enormous size. While Sanchez may be hitting the gym ahead of a rugby match, this guy won’t be needing any training, he appears to spend his life in the gym – if my memory serves me correctly, I’m pretty sure that Akinfenwa is the strongest player in FIFA 2016? The striker is nicknamed ‘The Beast’, and as such he is reminiscent of South African prop Tendai Mtawarira, who also has that nickname. I imagine that Akinfenwa would have no issues in the pressure cooker that is the scrum. Indeed, I feel sorry for whoever has to try and push against him.
Rugby player he kind of reminds me of: Tendai Mtawarira (South Africa)
Hooker: Wayne Rooney
In the modern rugby game hookers are becoming quicker and more mobile than ever, but old trademarks remain. They are angry, confrontational and strong. Wayne Rooney certainly has these attributes, and some may argue that he looks the part for a position in the front row of rugby (Diego Costa would also fit this category). The former England football captain actually reminds me of current England rugby captain Dylan Hartley, with both known for an aggressive nature which can sometimes spill over into outright foul play. On the other hand both are very passionate, and work hard for their team. Hartley has cleaned up his act and recently led England to successive Six Nations titles and the Grand Slam, but how will Rooney fair in his first season back with Everton?
Close call: Roy Keane
Rugby player he kind of reminds me of: Dylan Hartley (England)
Prop: Branislav Ivanović
The former Chelsea right back has been described as a “tank” by opposition players, and this will serve him well in the scrum. For years he was the only Chelsea player who could match the legendary Didier Drogba for strength. If he could apply his no-nonsense attitude to rugby, then he would be useful in attack and defence. And while Akinfenwa does most of the pushing (probably with one hand), and Rooney argues with people, Ivanović can pop up randomly for scoring opportunities. A try-scoring prop, you say? That’ll be the day…
Close call: Hulk
Rugby player he kind of reminds me of: Martín Castrogiovanni (Italy)
Second Row: Vincent Kompany (captain)
The second row in rugby need to be tall and powerful. At 6’4, Kompany certainly meets that criteria, and in defence he has proven over the years that he is powerful too. Kompany gets the captaincy role for another reason though: more than any footballer in this list, he plays sport in a manner that fits very well into the rugby ethos. He is respectful of the referee, he is gracious in defeat and he is a great leader. When Manchester City beat Liverpool on penalties to win the Carabao Cup last year, I noticed something quite telling. While the rest of the Manchester City team ran down the pitch to hug Willy Cabellero and celebrate the win, Vincent Kompany walked over to the crestfallen Liverpool players and shook their hands. This is not just the sign of a good captain, it is the sign of a good sportsman, and as such he would be a worthy leader in the No.4 position on the rugby pitch – which, funnily enough, is the number he wears for Manchester City.
Rugby player he kind of reminds me of: Paul O’Connell (Ireland)
Second Row: Per Mertesacker
It’s funny, when I think about it the lumbering Marouane Fellaini might well have been a rugby player after all. Like, he went to the wrong trial or something? That said, I can’t quite pick him for the other second row berth. Generally speaking when a second row forward runs in rugby, it looks a little unnatural just because they are so tall. The first footballer I thought of in this context was Per Mertesacker. At 6’6 he would be crucial to winning ball from the line-outs, and he is known for his defence so he ticks off two crucial factors already. What’s more, he is actually hard as nails – I remember watching Germany vs Argentina at the 2010 World Cup, and at one point in the game an Argentinian volleyed a ball into Mertesacker’s face at point blank range. What did Mertesacker do? Shook it off like a Labrador and immediately jogged off!
Close calls: Marouane Fellaini, Andy Carroll, Patrick Viera
Rugby player he kind of reminds me of: Devin Toner (Ireland)
Blindside Flanker: Nemanja Matić
The No.6 position on the rugby pitch, otherwise known as the blindside flanker, does a lot of the grunt work for the team. He will often top the tackle count for a game, sometimes going completely unnoticed in games – but you certainly notice when he isn’t on the pitch. Nemanja Matić fits this role well, rarely getting on the score sheet but often having done the important clean up work for Chelsea and now Manchester United. In Chelsea’s title-winning season of 2014-15, no player was more noticeable in their absence than him. What’s more, he’s a big guy and could match anyone for physicality. When he was playing for Serbia, I remember a Greek player squaring up to Matić and even threatening to punch him. You know what Matić did? He laughed in the guys face… This bruising bouncer of a man will be crucial to protecting other players by doing the grunt work for them, and it is clear that he is ideally suited to the role.
Close calls: Giorgio Chiellini, Jan Vertonghen
Rugby player he kind of reminds me of: Dan Lydiate (Wales)
Openside Flanker: N’Golo Kanté
One of the most important positions in rugby, the No.7 does the most running out of everyone on the pitch. He is a nuisance to the opposition, tackles everything that moves, wins back possession for his team… sound familiar? Who else but N’Golo Kanté. Initially I thought the French international was a bit too small for this crucial role, but that didn’t stop England international and Rugby World Cup winning flanker Neil Back! Couple of sessions on the weights, and this incredible footballer could stand a good chance in rugby. Kanté is just such a workhorse – you know he would give everything for the team and outrun everyone else on the pitch. What’s more, he has the ability to help the attack as well as the defence, so would be a very capable option in this position. It may not be flashy, but then sometimes rugby is a slog in the rain and mud, and he would get the job done in these situations, with the occasional flash of attacking flair for the sunnier days.
Close call: James Milner
Rugby player he kind of reminds me of: John Hardie (Scotland)
Number Eight: Yaya Touré
When I look this team, I realise it’s made up of players from countries who don’t even have recognised rugby teams. Belgium, Germany, Portugal, Serbia and now Ivory Coast. Imagine having Belgium and Germany in the Six Nations – on this evidence they could be pretty good… Anyway, here is the last pick, and again it’s a bit of a no brainer. When Yaya goes on one of his defence-splitting runs, it is hard not to imagine him doing the same from the back of a scrum. While some of this team might be hitting the weights for a Rocky-esque montage, Yaya simply needs to keep on doing what he’s been doing for years in the Premier League. Billy Vunipola has run through players for fun throughout his career, and I would say that the giant and hugely strong Touré is more than capable of doing the same. The ground will shake.
Rugby player he kind of reminds me of: Billy Vunipola (England)