A look at the different roles played by members of the team and what skills they need
What are the positions in rugby union?
A rugby union starting team consists of 15 players – seven backs and eight forwards. Here we run through all the positions and highlight some of the best players in each of the roles.
Full-back – Number 15
Full-back is no place for the faint-hearted as they are the last line of defence, so tackling is a must, and the person, along with wingers, who takes the majority of the high balls. They are like a sweeper in football cleaning up the mess. Mike Brown, and Freddie Steward these days, made a living out of their high-ball mastery for England but that is not all they have to do.
The No 15 is expected to be a good kicker, handy in these days of the 50:22 kick law, and be an attacking threat. Christian Cullen, the great All Black, was one of the best attacking full-backs to play the game and him hitting the attacking line at speed or running from deep, is enough to bring players of that era when he was strutting his stuff, between 1996 and 2002 for New Zealand, out in a cold sweat.
Wing – Numbers 11 and 14
In theory wings are the glory hunters as their currency is tries. But there is much more to being a wing these days than getting on the end of a backs’ move and going over in the corner.
Defence, courage under the high ball, reading of the game and working with the full-back in the backfield are all part of it. Jason Robinson has a highlights reel of tries to rank with anyone but he could defend and kick with the best too.
Eddie Jones, the England head coach, has a theory about most things and he has a theory about wingers. He likes what he calls a work-rate winger and a speed merchant. And when he was in charge of Australia he didn’t mind a couple of big wings either, like Wendell Sailor and Lote Tuqiri.
The wings shouldn’t just hang about waiting for the ball. A good winger comes off their touchline to look for the ball and run off the shoulder of attackers. Chris Ashton did this for years, running rugby league lines, many of which did not come off, but when they did he was in business. Playing with Semi Radradra at Toulon helped.
The good thing is wingers come in all shapes and sizes from Shane Williams at about 5ft 7in, and 12st 8lb wet-through, to Nemani Nadolo, at 6ft 5in and around 19st.
Centre – Numbers 12 and 13
The inside-centre (12) can usually be one of two beasts. Does the coach want a big basher who will get over the gain-line, like Manu Tuilagi, or a ball-playing 12 more in the Owen Farrell or Matt Giteau mode?
Or they could mix and match and have both of them in the same package like Ma’a Nonu in his later days for New Zealand. A good kicking game to take the heat off the fly-half is a massive plus.
The 13 – the outside-centre – should have a good outside break, kicking game and vision but it is also one of the hardest places in the back-line to defend from and for 12s and 13s good defence is non-negotiable. The 10-12-13 axis is generally referred to as the midfield.
Fly-half – Number 10
The fly-half is the general of the team and, normally, the key decision-maker in attack and often the team’s main goalkicker. And they come in all sizes from Marcus Smith to Handré Pollard but are the eyes and ears of the coach on the field.
In virtually every attack the fly-half will get their hands on the ball and either kick or pass, everything runs through the ten. Most of them will call back-line moves and probe for gaps in the defence and they will liaise with the lineout forwards, telling them where they want the ball to launch attacks.
Some other backs might try drop-goals but the fly-half is the biggest source of this much overlooked way of scoring. New Zealand were searching for a three-pointer in the late stages of the 2007 Rugby World Cup quarter-final against France in Cardiff but both their main fly-halves, Dan Carter and Nick Evans, were off the pitch. They failed and lost 20-18.
It used to be accepted that the fly-half did not bother tackling but that all changed when Jonny Wilkinson came on the scene and burly opposing centres and back-rowers tried to run down his channel. They normally didn’t try again.
Scrum-half – Number 9
Scrum-half is the link between the forwards and the backs, usually a good communicator who has to tell players twice their height and weight what to do, is almost always in the ear of the referee and is generally a bit chippy. They are not always small though; Terry Holmes and Mike Phillips more recently were as big as back-row forwards.
Quick passing, off both hands, is one of the mainstays of a scrum-half’s skill-set, as is the dreaded box kicking and an eye for a gap around the breakdown. If you are Antoine Dupont you can add running support lines off midfielders and wingers into the mix.
They might be chippy but scrum-halves have to be the fittest players on the pitch. They need to get to every ruck and maul, and can expect to run over 10km a game if they stay on for the duration.
Bizarrely as one of the decision-makers in the team, and part of the so-called spine, they seem to get subbed off after about an hour most weeks.
Prop – Numbers 1 and 3
There are different types of prop, loosehead, tighthead and the rare beasts who can play both sides – take a bow Andrew Porter, Jason Leonard and Fran Cotton.
The loosehead prop, No 1, has his head on the outside of the opposite tighthead at the scrum, and has to support the hooker and try to move the tighthead back and up. Tighthead is where the money is at; with the amount of pressure going through their spines they earn every penny of it.
At lineouts the props are generally the lifters but mostly they love the scrums.
In the old days the thought of a prop getting their hands on the ball more than once or twice a game would have attracted a funny look. Now they are used as ball-carriers in midfield and their handling skills have shot up. Mako Vunipola would, nearly, not look out of place at centre with his ball skills, neither would Red Roses prop Sarah Bern.
Hooker – Number 2
If the scrum-half is the gobby one in the backs, the hooker is generally the pack’s motormouth, which takes some doing as they are totally defenceless at scrums with both their hands, and fists, wrapped around the props.
They are normally very feisty, witness any old video of Brian Moore, Sean Fitzpatrick, Bobby Windsor or Daniel Dubroca playing and you will see what we mean. Dubroca, like John Smit, even did a stint propping at Test level.
Throwing in at lineouts, or darts, is a vital part of the hooker’s arts. A wayward throw at the lineout can kill an attacking opportunity, or cause a defensive shambles, but some of them used to regard this bit of the job as a sideshow and just lob the ball in willy-nilly, they don’t do that now and you would back Jamie George to hit double tops at Alexandra Palace.
One very famous England hooker once said he did his job if he scrummed well, hit rucks and threw in well at the lineouts. They are the nuts and bolts but there is a bit more to it than that and they are expected to pop up with the ball in hand too and do some fancy stuff.
Locks – Numbers 4 and 5
Locks come in pairs but can be very different characters. Think about Bakkies Botha, the enforcer, and Victor Matfield, the lineout king, in the old South Africa team or Martin Johnson and Ben Kay in the England team of 2003.
All locks, or second-rows, have to be good scrummagers and good lineout jumpers; these are absolutely non-negotiable. The hardest scrum merchant normally packs down behind the tighthead but both props feel a lot more comfortable if they have a good bit of power coming from the second row.
Some are professors of lineouts, Kay and Steve Borthwick for example, and take on the responsibility of running that set-piece and trying to ruin the opposition’s. They must be strong maulers and the longer their arms are the better for interfering and grappling for the ball in those situations.
It goes without saying that locks, like everything else in rugby it seems, are much bigger now than back in the day. Bill Beaumont was an England and British & Irish Lions captain but at 6ft 3in probably wouldn’t get a look in at lock now. Maro Itoje at 6ft 6in is probably the perfect height, and wingspan, for a lock.
Back row – Numbers 6, 7 and 8
The back row is traditionally made up of the No 8, who packs down with his head between the locks at the scrum, and two flankers, the openside and blindside, who bind onto the locks at the side of the scrum.
The blindside packs down on the short side of the scrum, where there is less space available between the set-piece and the touchline, and the openside patrols the open spaces. Some teams play left and right flankers, which requires all-rounders.
Opensides, No 7 all over the world but No 6 in South Africa, are the fetchers, should be turnover kings, brutal tacklers and the link man in open play. Blindsides, No 6 all over the world but No 7 in South Africa, are the hit men, which is why a lock, like Itoje or Courtney Lawes, can often be found there.
Having a big No 6 also gives the team another lineout option. They also have to look after the opposing No 8 as they run off the back of a scrum down the blind, or short side.
The No 8 is the glory seeker of the back row, going for pushover tries, big carries in the midfield, destroying mauls and bashing up opponents. They can range from the ones who meander around the pitch but are always in the right position, like Dean Richards in his pomp, or the more athletic, rangy lineout ones who are quick around the park like Kieran Read.
The mix of the back row is a controversial topic. In the 1990s when Jack Rowell was coach of England Neil Back, at 5ft 10in, and in the end a World Cup winning seven could not get a look in. Rowell picked massive back rows with the likes of Richards, Ben Clarke and Tim Rodber making up the unit and Back, perceived as too small, only got a regular gig when Clive Woodward took over.
Some sides have played two opensides together, making the breakdown a priority, as Australia did with Michael Hooper and David Pocock, Jones has played Tom Curry, normally a flanker, at No 8 and Lawrence Dallaglio won most of his early caps as flanker before switching to No 8.
Bench – Numbers 16 to 23
Impact players, game changers, coaches can say what they like but no player worth their salt wants to be on the bench from the start.
The list of replacements in rugby union at elite level has to include three front-rowers and is usually a 5:3 forwards:backs split or a 6:2 split, when one of the backs is normally a scrum-half.
A back who can play 10, 12, 13, 11, 14 or 15 is handy to one of these spots but usually end up cursing their versatility as it means they are stuck on the bench as cover rather than being a starter. Austin Healey, who was also a superb No 9, suffered a bit from this in a great England team.
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