Aside from the obvious, one major distinction between football and rugby union is the latter’s extra emphasis on positional discipline. Whereas football is decidedly fluid, with most players having the freedom to assist in areas which are not their forte and often having personal squad numbers, rugby union players are numbered according to their position, with each one carrying with it a series of responsibilities.
The basic split in a 15-man rugby union side is between the eight Forwards (numbered 1-8) and the seven Backs (numbered 9-15). These two camps both have basic tasks to achieve as a group but, more specifically, contain players with particular skills to complete them successfully. Our article here on Talk Rugby Union provides an introduction to the different positions within the Forwards and Backs and describes their specific roles and responsibilities.
The Forwards’ chief responsibility is to gain and retain possession of the ball, whether in open play or from set pieces such as the scrum and the line-out. They will contain the most physically intimidating members of the team, with weight and power a major issue. However, as general athletic standards have increased in the modern game, so Forwards are today expected to have some speed and agility, particularly when carrying the ball. The Forwards are made up of the following positions:
Loosehead Prop (No. 1)
The loosehead prop supports the hooker in the scrum and the jumpers in the line-out. He/she must have plenty of power for the scrum but, at the same time, they are vital to the proper functioning and movement of the scrum. Indeed, when substituting a prop, his/her replacement must be a prop themselves, such are the skills required.
More specifically, the loosehead prop can be found on the left-hand side of the scrum and is so called because he/she is not locked into the scrum. Instead, his/her head is outside that of the opposition tighthead prop
Tighthead Prop (No. 3)
Identical to the loosehead prop, but the tighthead packs down on the right-hand side of the scrum and is named ‘tighthead’ because they are locked between two opponents (the loosehead prop and the hooker). There are other subtle differences in technique, which you will pick up as you get further into the sport.
- Famous Props - Jason Leonard (England), Wilson James Whineray (New Zealand).
Hooker (No. 2)
The hookers are unsurprisingly responsible chiefly for hooking the ball with their feet in the scrum, although some are experienced and skilled enough to act as an extra prop as well (to complicate opposition feeds by the scrum-half).
The hooker additionally usually throw the ball at line-outs, and it’s their responsibility to ensure success with good distribution.
- Famous Hookers - Sean Fitzpatrick (New Zealand)
The Locks (Nos. 4 & 5)
The locks are typically the tallest players and act as targets at line-outs, having to catch and distribute to the scrum-half or at least pat the ball on his/her team’s side. At the scrum, they are vitally located between the props and the hooker, and provide balance and momentum to the team’s efforts. They are also extremely important in rucks and mauls, and need to be effective ball carriers, making the locks pivotal to how the forwards generally operate and succeed.
- Famous Locks - Martin Johnson (England), Colin Meads (New Zealand), John Eales (Australia)
Blindside Flanker (No. 6)
The flanker is a curiosity in rugby union, being the only true all-rounder position with no set duties. It is therefore paradoxical that flankers are considered potential game-winning players. In the scrum, they are not big pushers and, although they must stay locked to the scrum until the ball is out (a recent introduction to the laws), they must respond quickly and unbind when it does.
Blindside flankers are generally larger than their openside counterparts and are so-called because they attach to the scrum on the side closer to the touchline and cover attacks on the blindside of the scrum. Throughout the game, the blindside flanker should act as a real ball-winner and can even perform duties as a jumper in the lineout.
Openside Flanker (No. 7)
Fundamentally similar to the blindside flanker, the openside equivalent is usually smaller and more agile, with extra pace to provide impetus to attacks. In the scrum, they are found on the side furthest from the touchline, allowing them to get into open play more quickly and, if they receive possession, test out the opponent’s defence for weaknesses.
- Famous Flankers - Richie McCaw (New Zealand), François Pienaar (South Africa), Wavell Wakefield (England)
Number Eight (No. 8)
The number eight is very much a linking man for the Forwards and the Backs, incorporating the attributes of both sets. Their fundamental role is to augment the team’s ball-winning and ball-carrying.
As such, they can be found in the rear of the scrum, controlling the movement and either feeding the ball to the scrum-half once it has been hooked back, or taking the ball on and running at the opposition. Similarly, they are typically located at the back of the lineout, providing an option for a long throw-in.
- Famous Number Eights - Hennie Muller (South Africa), Lawrence Dallaglio (England), Morne du Plessis (South Africa)
The Backs are expected to both create and convert point-scoring opportunities after the ball has been won and taken on by the Forwards. All members have to be agile and dynamic, with pace a major attribute for many positions, but kicking skills are a priority elsewhere. Moreover, just as the Forwards have grown more agile in recent years, so too the disparity in size and strength between the Forwards and the Backs has shrunk markedly to allow the latter to contribute more effectively in defence and attack.
Scrum-half (No. 9)
Much like the number 8 links the Forwards to the Backs, so too the scrum-half connects the Backs to the Forwards.
The scrum-half is involved in play at all times - feeding the ball into the scrum and usually distributing after it has left, standing at the side of the lineout waiting to receive the ball from the jumpers, and following rucks and mauls. He or she is also the first line of defence in most situations.
Precisely because of these duties, the scrum-half has to be smaller than the majority of the team, have outstanding handling and distribution, as well as a fair amount of guile. For example, England’s Matt Dawson set up teammate Jonny Wilkinson’s famous drop goal to win the World Cup final in 2003 with what he later described as a ‘schoolboy dummy’ to evade tacklers and gain the necessary territory, putting Wilkinson in range.
- Famous Scrum-Halves - Gareth Edwards (Wales; arguably the greatest player of all-time), Matt Dawson (England), George Gregan (Australia)
Fly-half (No. 10)
Otherwise known as the flying half back, the fly-half is arguably the most influential player on the pitch, as he calls the tactical game on the pitch with his kicking, distribution and ball-carrying from deep. The fly-half is also typically the goal-kicker. As a result, the fly-half has to be a leader, a powerful and accurate kicker, and yet also perform to the highest standard in defense.
- Famous Fly-Halves - Jonny Wilkinson (England), Grant Fox (New Zealand), Michael Lynagh (Australia), Daniel Carter (New Zealand)
Wingers (Nos. 11 & 14)
The wingers are big try scorers and are usually seen on hand finishing a successful attack. Every time you hear a commentator refer to an ‘overlap’, for example, it will typically be the winger who receives the scoring pass. Therefore, the wingers are the quickest players and, during attacks, run into the space up to the try line provided by the forwards and the other backs.
That said, because of their defensive duties, recent decades have seen more powerful wingers who can ride tackles as well as put in strong ones of their own. The incredible impact of New Zealand’s 19-stone winger Jonah Lomu in the 1995 and 1999 World Cups was a decisive moment, encouraging wingers to take on the traits of other players as well as their physiques. As such, wingers today can also be ‘link players’, comprising the skills of half-backs and fullbacks as part of ‘the 3’ (the two wingers and the full-back – all with starting positions closest to their team’s goal area).
- Famous Wingers - David Campese (Australia), Jonah Lomu (New Zealand), Doug Howlett (New Zealand), Jason Robinson (England)
Inside Centre (No. 12) & Outside Centre (No. 13)
Like their flanker counterparts in the Forwards, the Centres are all-rounders, but with extra power, mobility and handling to augment the defensive capabilities of the Backs as well as provide some venom to the offence. Both Centres receive frequent balls from the fly-half to test the opposition’s defensive line and expose gaps which either they or the wingers can profit from.
However, whereas the outside centre tends more towards wing-play, the inside centre more closely approximates the fly-half in his or her abilities. It is subsequently far from unique for a fly-half to play at inside centre and vice versa (England’s Jonny Wilkinson is a notable example)
- Famous Centres - Tana Umaga (New Zealand), Philippe Sella (France), Mike Tindall (England), Mils Muliaina (New Zealand)
Fullback (No. 15)
The fullback acts as a sweeper behind the first few lines of defence, but his responsibilities don’t end with tackling. The fullback must also have good handling, distribution and kicking. Furthermore, despite his withdrawn position in the scrums and the lineouts, the fullback has become increasingly pivotal to a team’s offensive game in recent years - initiating attacks from deep in the field. One tradition which has endured is the fullback’s duty to contend with high-kicks from opposition players while under pressure.
- Famous Fullbacks - Christian Cullen (New Zealand), Gavin Hastings (Scotland), George Nepia (New Zealand)