By Ian Cameron of RugbyPass.com
As the sports cliché goes, there's no substitute for speed. Rugby has had its fair share of flyers down the years; be it former Olympic hurdler Nigel Walker speeding down the wing for Wales in the 1990s, Springbok Bryan Habana in the noughties, or more recently England's Jonny May, the sport has enjoyed some genuinely lightning-quick athletes. But who are the fastest rugby players on the planet?
What's changed is how fast a rugby player runs no longer belongs in the realms of hearsay, hyperbole and conjecture. Now it's largely a matter of some scientific certainty. While the 100m times were once the gold standard, now GPS units between player's shoulder blades measure metres per second, capturing a 'moment in time' maximum velocity.
It leaves a lot less room for argument.
Speed testing in professional rugby typically involves 40 metre electronically timed runs, while GPS units are picking up maximum velocity attained during training sessions. As a result, you're more likely to hear of about a player's 40-metre time or 'metres per second' (m/s) stat. These can vary of course. 'In game' speeds, where the opportunity to reach maximum velocity, in the fifteen man code at least, is few and far between, are naturally less likely to reach does of a controlled environment in training.
Take the Rugby World Cup for example. According to Stats Sports, the average max speed of a rugby union back three players is around 9.1 metres a second (m/s) for a wing and about 9.2 m/s for a fullback. That's the average maximum of speed of a player in that position, taken during live games. Those speeds are an average, so the top speed of the fastest players in each of those positions will have been significantly higher.
According to their numbers, South Africa's Cheslin Kolbe was able to maintain a speed of 33.66kmh over the course of one of his famous runs – a number different to his maximum velocity – which would have been higher again.
Former England flyer Christian Wade regularly ran top speeds of 11.1 to 11.2 m/s a second according to teammate Brendan Macken, who told Patrick McCarry's Hard Yards podcast that: "He's going about 11 metres per second [at top speed] and I don't think any other rugby player is touching that. The really, really quick guys would be getting 10.5 or 10.6 while Christian is regularly getting 11 and sometimes hitting 11.1 and 11.2."
Current England speedster Jonny May has been clocked at 10.49 m/s which was clocked during a 40 metre speed test in 2017. "I was gobsmacked because I had just tweaked my hammy the week before," May said at the time.
Blues' Rieko Ioane is fastest in the current All Blacks outfit, and apparently has hit 37kph, or 10.3 m/s +. According to ex-All Blacks coach Steve Hansen, "Gilly (Nic Gill) has timed him and he's running 35-37km/h."
Perhaps the fastest man to play 15-a-side rugby meaningfully is Sebastien Carrat, a former track athlete who ran a PB in the 100m of 10.34 seconds. He played for the Brive in the 1990s and scored a lot of tries.
Sevens is a different kettle of fish of course, and merits discussion separately from the 15-man code. Sevens athletes – rugby union's speed specialists – regularly hit ranges between 35 to 38kph (or 9.72 m/s to 10.55 m/s) on the HSBC World Series; speeds rarely seen in Test rugby.
USA Sevens specialist Carlin Isles, the former sprinter, has a lock on the 'rugby's fastest man' moniker. Isles recorded a wind-assisted 100m PB of 10.13 clocked in 2012. In 2016 he clocked a legal 10.15 second effort at an athletic meet in California.
The fastest metre per second speed Isles has recorded on the pitch was a stunning 11.5m/s or 25.725 miles per hour (41.4 kph). That's a full 3kph faster than the 37kph the American regularly hits at Sevens tournaments and it is unlikely anyone will ever run that fast on a rugby pitch again. Isles also bagged a 4.22 second 40-yard dash, timed during a brief stint at the Detroit Lions in the NFL, although it has never been entered into the official record books (it would equal the fastest time since records began).
That's not to say the American is without competition. His title has been under threat of late thanks to the addition to Australia Seven team of fellow sprinter Trae Williams. Although we couldn't source a m/s speed for the man known as 'Quadzilla', he has clocked a 10.1 100m in 2018, suggesting he's almost certainly capable of running at 11 metres a second plus.
Jamaican sprinter Warren Weir also spent some time in that country's Sevens programme in 2018. Although a 200m specialist, his PB for the 100m 10.02, which would technically have made him the fastest man in rugby at the time, even if he wasn't playing at the game at an elite level and it was for a very brief period.
While rugby players 'moment in time' top speeds are inevitably extrapolated out as an average over 100m and compared to Usain Bolt's 100m World Record, naturally even Isles would be left in the great man's wake. Bolt, at his fastest in Berlin in 2009, hit a speed of 12.4 metres a second.
Rugby's fastest players do compare favourably with other field sports however. In rugby league, Super League's Warrington Wolves forward Daryl Clark hit 35.82kph, roughly 9.97 metres per second, during a match. Teammate and former code-hoping Sale Sharks wing Josh Charnley has also run 9.83 m/s.
In Association Football, PSG striker Kylian Mbappe is touted by many as football's fastest player. The Frenchman has recorded speeds of 10.55 m/s (37.98kph), which put him in the mix with top rugby players. However it is Blackburn Rovers Tyler Magloire that can claim the bragging right here, the English man has been clocked at 10.6 m/s or 38.1kph.
Wade was the third fastest in the NFL pre-season in 2019, clocking 21mph (33.8kph) dead playing for the Buffalo Bills, a speed just 0.1mph behind the fastest. While NFL players wear pads and helmets weighing 3-4kgs, it's a still a good 2km behind the speeds top rugby sevens players record. The benchmark for speed in the NFL is the 40-yard dash, where each year the fastest draft prospects clock speeds under 4.4 seconds. In 2017, John Ross ran a 4.22 40-yard dash, an all-time record in the sport.
Here's a list of reported times and metre per second speeds across the sport, all either reported by teammates, coaches or the players themselves.
RUGBY UNION XVS
Christian Wade 11.1 m/s
Kieran Marmion 10.7 m/s
Jesse Mogg 10.6 m/s
Aaron Sexton 10.5 m/s
Jonny May 10.49 m/s
Barry Daly (Leinster) 10.44 m/s
Rieko Ioane 10.3+ m/s
Louis Rees-Zammit RZ 10.1 m/s
Joe Cokanasiga 10.0 m/s +
Rory Scholes (Connacht) 10.0 m/s
Stephen Ferris 9.98 m/s
Jacob Stockdale (Ulster) 9.97 m/s
Simon Zebo (Munster) – 9.85 m/s
Marika Koribete 9.8m/s
Tommy Bowe 9.7 m/s
Alex Dunbar 9.4 m/s
40m SPRINT TIMES
Sosene Anesi 4.53
Bryan Habana 4.58
Rodney Davies 4.59
Shane Williams 4.66
Joe Rokococo 4.66
Sbu Nkosi 4.71
Toni Pulu 4.78
Charlie Sharples 4.82
George North 4.97
Sebastien Carrat 10.34
Nigel Walker 10.47
Brett Stapleton 10.51
Aaron Sexton 10.52
Ugo Monye 10.66
Doug Howlett 10.68
Tom Varndell 10.83
*Edward Osei-Nketia 10.19, but hasn't played professionally
Carlin Isles 11.5 m/s
Perry Baker 10.3+ m/s
Jordan Conroy 10.3+ m/s
Alosio Naduva 10.3+ m/s
Dan Norton 4.78 40m
Trae Williams 10.1 100m
Carlin Isles 10.15 100m
Perry Baker 10.58m 100m