A look at the potential rise of multi-position players, as part of our Future Rugby series


Former Saracens and Springboks star Schalk Brits believes that utility players will become more prominent in the wake of South Africa’s 2023 World Cup victory.

Last August, Springbok coaches Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber were heavily criticised for their World Cup squad selections. The 33-man group included just two specialist hookers, one fly-half, and as many as four scrum-halves. 

To most, it appeared as if the coaches had taken a bold and unnecessary gamble with regard to their squad dynamic. South Africa’s worst fears were realised following the World Cup pool match against Scotland, when star hooker Malcolm Marx sustained a tournament-ending injury. 

Instead of calling for front-row reinforcements, the brains trust backed loose forwards Deon Fourie and Marco van Staden to cover the hooker position for the remainder of the campaign. Fly-half Handré Pollard was parachuted into the squad, and eventually replaced Manie Libbok as the team’s first-choice No 10 and goal-kicker.

We all know how that panned out: the group went on to win its second-consecutive World Cup title, and Erasmus and Nienaber received due plaudits for their excellent planning and player-management. 

The squad dynamic certainly influenced the outcome, as did the decision to include seven forwards on the bench for the final against New Zealand. In hindsight, the Bok coaches’ selection gamble was well calculated. 

While they didn’t have everything their own way over the course of a six-year stint, Erasmus and Nienaber did win two World Cups and a Lions series. Clearly they did something right, and teams with similar ambitions may take a leaf out of that green and gold playbook in future.

Brits on Positional versatility

“To be honest, I expected more teams to follow suit after we won the World Cup back in 2019,” former Bok hooker Schalk Brits tells Rugby World. 

“Few did, though. Perhaps they will see the benefit in the wake of the 2023 World Cup victory – where our bench and utility forwards were key once again.”  

Brits played 15 Tests for South Africa between 2008 and 2019, and will be remembered as one of Saracens’ best players during a golden era for the English club. He is well placed to comment on utility players, having played hooker and No 8 for the Boks.

Fourie was earmarked for the “Brits role” at the 2023 tournament, and went on to play most of the final at hooker after Bongi Mbonambi left the field in the fourth minute. Meanwhile, Damian Willemse was asked to cover a range of backline positions.

As Brits explains, the coaches’ faith in the utility players, as well as a collective shift in mindset, contributed to South Africa’s back-to-back successes.

“If you look back to how it was in the past, you specialised in one position. Rassie challenged that when he started at the Boks in 2018,” says Brits.

“Rassie used the bench in a creative way at the 2019 and 2023 World Cups. He wouldn’t have been able to do that if certain players weren’t able to cover multiple positions.

“In 2019, we were able to select a 6-2 split between forwards and backs on the bench thanks to Frans Steyn, as he covered all the backline positions (bar scrum-half). In 2023, Damian Willemse played that utility role, which freed us up to pick more forwards in our squad. 

“Rassie has always been one to try new things, and while there have always been versatile players in rugby, Rassie really pushed the idea of utility players – and utility forwards in particular.”

Other noteworthy examples

Other nations have certainly embraced the idea of the lock-cum-blindside flanker, with Tadhg Beirne, Scott Barrett, Courtney Lawes and Maro Itoje among those who have enjoyed game time in both positions. 

Some like Mauro Bergamasco have played in the pack as well as the backline – although few would argue that the Italy flanker’s stint at scrumhalf in a Test against England in 2009 was a resounding success.

The Boks have certainly taken the utility concept further in recent years. Brits, Fourie, and to a lesser extent Van Staden have covered hooker and the back row. Franco Mostert has long be listed as a utility forward, given his ability to start at lock or blindside flank. Pieter-Steph du Toit began his career in the second row before moving to No 7 – and even plays No 8 for his club in Japan.

Kwagga Smith has featured for his country in all-three back-row positions – as well as on the wing. Grant Williams and Cobus Reinach have been asked to play scrumhalf and wing, Recently, Faf de Klerk has emulated the likes of Freddie Michalak by covering 9 and 10, and Cheslin Kolbe has also slotted in at scrumhalf when needed. Jesse Kriel and Canan Moodie have started big Tests at No 13 as well as on the wing.

Erasmus and Nienaber have encouraged their players to expand their skill-sets, and the upshot is that the Boks have had more options heading into big tournaments such as the World Cup.

“It depends on your playing group, and a lot of preparation is done behind the scenes,” admits Brits. “In 2019, we had players like myself, who could cover hooker and the back row. In 2023 there was Deon Fourie and Marco van Staden covering those positions. They had the skills, but they had to prepare for dual roles.”

Smith was another key piece to the World Cup puzzle. In 2023, the loose forward – who was began his career in the seven-man code – covered a couple of backline positions when the coaches opted for a 7-1 split on the bench.

Switching from forwards to backs

Smith, of course, was not the only player to cross the line between forwards and backs. Sekou Macalou did it recently for France, switching between flank and wing. 

The transition is not without risk, though.

“Kwagga Smith has a background in sevens, but I don’t think people understand how different and challenging it is to switch between the forwards and backs,” points out Brits.

“I remember playing for the Stormers awhile back, where I was asked to fill in on the wing after we had an injury. I backed my speed to cope with the demands of the position, but jeez it was a whole new world out there, in terms of how the players move. 

“Between the forwards and backs – your role in the playing pattern is different, your running lines are different. So if you’re going to switch, your preparation has to be spot on. 

“Even going from hooker to No 8 is no easy task. I had to be prepared for the set-piece duties as well as the responsibility of covering the back field [when the opposition decided to kick]. It’s a lot of work, and you have to be sharp, but the benefit to the team can be enormous.”

Nevertheless, there are many who view the Bok methods as the antithesis of progress. 

Since the 2019 World Cup, there has been a clamour for a change to the laws and a reduction in the number of substitutes – in order to prevent to teams like South Africa from loading their bench with what is essentially a second pack of forwards. Wales coach Warren Gatland recently suggested that this has had a negative impact on the game.

“I see a few coaches are moaning about it again, and I can’t understand why,” says Brits.

“The 6-2 strategy challenged the traditional mindset, and led to the evolution of how teams use their bench. We should be applauding innovations and creative thinking in our game – we need more of it.

“Overall, I think it prompts a new take on debates like ‘Is Damian Willemse a 10, 12 or 15’.  Maybe we shouldn’t obsess about the number on the player’s back. Guys like Damian are just bloody good rugby players; they will be ballers wherever they are deployed. We shouldn’t put players like that in a box.”

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