Originally the number of players in a game of Rugby football was not limited, and there were no formal playing positions. Games at rugby school were simply played by however many boys wanted to play in a particular game. A kind of huge rolling maul developed, moving around the field since there was a very limited amount of space on the field in which to run. As the game began to be played between different schools and clubs a fixed number of players was needed. This then allowed players to start specializing in certain positions and to develop particular skills appropriate to those positions.
Rugby teams were then limited to twenty players made up of seventeen forwards and three full backs whose sole job was to maintain possession if the opposition managed to hack it out the scrum. Circa 1875 the number of players in a team was reduced to fifteen (ten forwards and five backs).
Today the player names, positions and numbers worn on shirts are defined by the International Rugby Board (IRB). Players usually have the following position names and numbers although there are some local variations in namingin common use:
1 prop (loose head) 2 hooker 3 prop (tight head) 4 lock 5 lock 6 flanker 7 flanker 8 number 8 B
9 scrum half 10 outside half or stand-off or fly half 11 left wing 12 left centre or inside centre 13 right centre or outside centre 14 right wing 15 full back
1 & 3 Prop
Along with the hooker, the loose-head and tight-head props make up what is known as the front row, which refers to their position in the scrum.
To be successful, both props must be extremely strong in the neck, shoulders, upper body and legs, and they should relish head-to-head competition.
While stopping their side of the scrum from moving backwards, the props also support the hooker's body weight, allowing him or her to see and strike the ball when it is put into the scrum. In the lineout, props should be able to support or lift the jumper to prevent the opposition winning the ball.
Away from set pieces, props help to secure the ball when a player has been tackled, so it helps if they can combine their power with a degree of mobility. You’ll also often see them used as battering rams in attack, receiving short passes after a ruck or maul and hitting the opposition defence at pace in an attempt to occupy the defenders and make space for their own backs.
Lining up in the scrum between the two props, the hooker is one of the forwards’ key decision-makers. He or she will coordinate the timing at the scrum, and is also responsible for winning possession in the scrummage by hooking the ball back through the props' legs.
To allow the hooker to do this effectively, the props support much of the hooker’s weight, leaving him or her free to concentrate on hooking the ball back, rather than pushing against the opposition forwards. For this reason the hooker is often the smallest member of a front-row trio.
At the lineout he or she is responsible for throwing the ball in and must be able to accurately hit the lineout jumper who is expecting the ball. In open play the hooker plays a similar role to the props, securing possession at rucks and mauls, or taking short ‘crash’ passes.
4 & 5 Lock
The second row forwards (also known as locks) are the engine room of the scrum and the target men in the lineout, meaning that they need to be tall, powerful players with excellent scrummaging technique and pinpoint timing.
If they bind to each other and the props too loosely in the scrum their pack will lose power, and if they are not accurate and dynamic with their lineout jumping, it offers the opposition forwards a chance to steal possession.
In open play the second row’s duties have evolved from being support players at rucks and mauls to ball carriers. If a marauding second row is comfortable with the ball in hand, their bulk and power makes them very difficult to stop.
6 & 7 Flanker
Open-side and blind-side flankers are often considered to be the players with the fewest set responsibilities, but as such must be excellent all-rounders with inexhaustible energy. Speed, strength, fitness, tackling and handling skills are all vital.
Flankers are more often than not at the centre of the action – winning balls at the ruck and maul, collecting short passes from tackled players and making their own big tackles in open play. While they can rarely be blamed for a loss, they can certainly be the key to victory.
The open-side flanker plays on the far side of the scrum from the touchline and is often smaller in size than their blind-side partner, making them more mobile around the pitch. The blind-side flanker tends to have bigger, more physical role around the pitch, and also acts as a target jumper in the lineout.
8 Number Eight
Support play, tackling and ball-carrying are the No.8’s areas of expertise, making his or her duties similar to the two flankers. Together the trio forms a unit called the back row.
Binding on right at the back of the scrum, the No.8 is also the only player from the forwards who is allowed to pick the ball up from the base of the scrum.
It is a move that is often used to gain vital yards when a team is scrummaging close to the opposition try line, and for it to be truly effective the No.8 must be an explosive, dynamic runner.
Acting as the link between the forwards and the backs, the scrum half is a key player when it comes to building attacks. Playing just behind the forwards, a good scrum half will control exactly when the ball is fed out to the backs from the rear of a scrum, ruck or maul.
A scrum half needs good vision, speed and awareness, quick hands and lightning reactions. They tend to be one of the smaller players on the pitch and so rely on protection from their own forwards. An indecisive or poorly protected scrum half makes easy meat for a rampaging opposition flanker.
The heartbeat of the side and arguably the most influential player on the pitch. Almost every attack will go through the fly half, who also has the responsibility of deciding when to pass the ball out to the centres and when to kick for position.
The fly half must orchestrate the team's back line, deciding what rehearsed moves to put into action and reacting to gaps in defence. He or she is also the main target for the defending team's open-side flanker and so must be strong in the tackle.
The fly half has to be able to relieve territorial pressure by kicking down the field into touch, and is often the team's designated place kicker for conversions, penalties and drop goal attempts.
In defence he or she will marshal the backs to ensure each opposition player is covered, and a strong-tackling fly half can snuff out opposition attacks before they start.
11 & 14 Wing
Playing out wide on the side of the pitch, the winger is a team’s finisher in attack. A winger is also often the last line of defence when they don’t have the ball and as such, pace is their major resource.
12 & 13 Centre
The inside centre – who stands closest to the fly half when the backs line up – and the outside centre tend to be strong, dynamic runners with a good eye for exposing gaps in the opposition defence. In attack they tend to run very direct lines.
The centres take on their opposite number in an attempt to either break the defensive line, or draw in enough opposition defenders to create space and try-scoring opportunities for their team-mates. As such they need to be strong and powerful, and when attack turns into defence, they must also be accomplished at tackling.
The inside centre is often the more creative in a centre pairing and should be able to pass and kick nearly as well as the fly half. In either defence or attack, the inside centre tends to be all action – dishing out the tackles and then drawing the opposition defence.
Meanwhile, the outside centre tends to be the faster of the two and the ability to offload the ball quickly to the wingers is also vital.
Lining up behind the entire back line, the full back is the closest thing that rugby has to a sweeper in defence. But they also receive deep kicks from the opposition, so they must be comfortable catching high balls and launching attacks from the resulting possession.
As such, the full back must have enough tactical awareness to recognise when to counter-kick, and when to run with the ball, often from deep within his or her half. Having started life as a winger, ex-England, Sale and British Lions player Jason Robinson was an excellent example of a running full back who also had the ability to kick his way out of trouble – the perfect combination for a number 15.
This high-pressure position is not for the faint-hearted, but those who can combine tackling, kicking, catching and running with a cool head can excel here.
Players will typically line up as follows at a scrum:
Here is a hierarchy of player position naming including collective terms, the corresponding common player numbering shown in parenthesis:
Forwards Tight five/Tight forwards/Front Five Front Row Props (1, 3) Hooker (2) Second Row Locks (4, 5) Back Row/Loose forwards/Loosies Flankers/Wing forwards (6, 7) Number 8 (8) Backs Inside Backs Half-backs Scrum-half/Inside half (9) Fly-half/Outside half/Stand off (10) Inside centre (12) Outside Backs Outside center (13) Back Three www.rugbyfootballhistory.com Left-wing (11) Right-Wing (14) Full-back (15)
- In some countries the term halfback refers solely to the scrum half, while in other countries it applies to both the scrum half and the fly half.
- New Zealand saw advantage in having a fourth player in the three-quarters placing a forward between the half back and the three-quarters. Legend has it that the position was named by deciding that the half back was 4/8ths and the three-quarters 6/8ths, so therefore the new position must be a 5/8ths. When fly half play developed they introduced the first 5/8th and the second 5/8th. Hence the fly half is sometimes referred to as the 1st 5/8, implying a slightly deeper position than halfback and the inside centre is sometimes referred to as the 2nd 5/8 implying a more forward position than a 3/4 back.
- Centres used to be called Centre Three-quarters and Wings, Wing Three-quarters. The term three quarters collectively describes the centers, wings and full-back.
- In some countries the Flankers are referred to as 'Break-aways' e.g. New Zealand.
- In some countries the No. 8 is referred to as the 'Last man down' e.g. New Zealand.
Additional collective terms:
Midfield Centres Three-quarters/Three-quarter backs Wingers and centres
Origin of the Half-Back (collective name for Fly-half and Scrum-half)
Originally the rules described three full backs which was later changed to one and the other two players were then stationed at a midpoint between the forwards and the full backs and were to be called half-way backs. In time this was shortened to half backs. Their role and that of the full back continued to be to fall on the ball in the event of the opposition hacking it out of the scrum.
Origin of Fly-Half
In 1878 at Cardiff, in Wales, they developed a short pass to one of the half backs who would then go charging ahead with the ball. He became known as the flying half back which in time was shortened to the fly half. In New Zealand the fly half is sometimes referred to as the 1st 5/8, implying a slightly deeper position than halfback.
Origin of the three-quarters
In the 1880’s the game had spread to the Universities, particularly Cambridge and Oxford, whose input lead to far more thought being put into the game and the style of play that was developed. They were instrumental in the development of the games tactics, the introduction of need to practice and the coaching of the players. In addition they re organised the scrum, developed short passes amongst the forwards and long passes amongst the backs. This led to the need for more players to be placed in the back line between the halves and the full back. The fraction between a half and a whole (full) is three-quarters.
Note: One alternative theory for why they are called three-quarters is that these new positions were called 'quarters' and the fact that three of them were put in this position led to them being known as three-quarters. But this seems unlikely since there is an obvious progression from Half-back (half-way from the from of the scrum to the full back), Five-eighths, three-quarters, full back..
Scotland claim the honour of having first introduced a third three-quarter, against Ireland in 1881.
Origin of the centre and wings
The middle player being called the centre with the two on his outside called wings.
The introduction of a fourth player into the three-quarters was to a large extent, accidental, with Wales again being allowed to take the honour. In 1885 Cardiff were due to play a tough match away from home and their first choice centre was not available so they promoted one Frank E. Hancock from the second side in his place. Hancock was a great success scoring two vital tries. When the Cardiff selectors sat down to pick their team for the next match they were keen to revert to their original team, but they were most reluctant to drop Hancock, so they compromised by introducing a fourth three-quarter. Within two years Wales had introduced it at international level.
The New Zealanders were quick to see the advantage of having a fourth player in the three-quarters. Their solution was to pull a forward out the pack and put him between the half back and the three-quarters. Their problem was what did they call the new position. Legend has it that consent was reached by deciding that the half back was 4/8ths and the three-quarters 6/8ths, so therefore the new position must be a 5/8ths, a name that has continued to this day in that country. When fly half play developed they introduced the first 5/8th and the second 5/8th.
Origin of the Number 8
This is a two-part question. In summary, the No 8 position evolved in South Africa, but was christened in New Zealand.
a) How did the No.8 evolve?
The position now known as No.8 evolved in South Africa in the 1920s.
Before the Great War a number of scrum patterns were tried. Most involved a three-man front-row in a 3-3-2 or more commonly 3-2-3 pack. Paddy Carolin of the 1906 Springboks claimed to have experimented with a 3-4-1 formation.
New Zealand most notably always used a 2-3-2 system. Their so-called diamond scrum had a rover to act as a detached winging forward who could also double as a second scrum-half. The Law dictating that a scrum must have a three-man front-row did not come into effect until the 1951-2 season (Law 15c.).
New Zealand apart, forwards in Test matches were selected primarily for their all-round skills - there were no fixed position in the early days. The first forwards up for a scrum were the first to pack down, although by the early 1900s there was usually one player specifically chosen to hook and one to act as a wing forward.
There is evidence that early Australian and French packs experimented with fixed places for their players under the 3-2-3 formation, but it wasn't until 1923 that Wavell Wakefield, as pack leader, allocated fixed positions to England's forwards. Two were devolved to prop up their hooker, while two formed the second-row. Behind them was a back-row of two wing-forwards either side of a middle man who was then called the lock or lock-forward - the position from which the No 8 has evolved. England won the Grand Slam that year and specialism became the norm in the Home Unions.
Meanwhile in South Africa, Oubaas Markötter of the famous Stellenbosch club developed the 3-4-1 pack formation to curb a fly-half named Bennie Osler, who was the master kicker and tactician for their great rivals at the University of Cape Town. Markötter's new scrum was essentially the 3-2-3 scheme but with the wing-forwards from the back-row flanking the second-row instead - and therefore closer to the fly-half.
That helped to address the Osler problem, but other advantages of the formation became apparent. With only one man at the back, the ball was heeled from the scrum more quickly, while the opposing scrum-half and loose forwards found it harder to disrupt possession. In addition, the inward push from the flankers at the scrum channelled considerable drive through their props and put extra pressure on the opposition hooker.
All South Africa embraced the 3-4-1 scrum and by 1928 it was the preferred formation for the Springboks in their home series with the All Blacks. In the first Test their scrum was a revelation to the New Zealanders, who were demolished 17-0. It wasn't until a few years later, however, that modern back-row play evolved. Markötter considered how to make the best use of a gifted Stellenbosch threequarter named André McDonald, who was not fast enough for a back and not big enough for a forward. McDonald was moved to the solo position at the back of the scrum where he inter-played with his scrum-half in attack and was deployed as a shadow flanker in defence.
So the prototype for the No.8 evolved in South Africa as a much looser player than his forerunner, the lock. South Africa still sought strong forwards who could push from the back of the scrum, but attacking and defensive duties for which the prime attribute was mobility became part of the job description.
The Springboks toured Britain/Ireland in 1931-32, demonstrating the new scrum formation and back-row tactics to the Home Unions, and in 1933 Australia saw them for the first time when they were beaten in a series in South Africa. By the time war broke out in 1939, most of the world's rugby-playing nations had bowed to Springbok supremacy, adopting the 3-4-1 pack and refining back-row tactics. The main dissenters were the Scots, who persisted with the old 3-2-3 system until the mid 1950s.
b) When was the term No.8 first used?
It was not until the 1940s that the expression No.8 became recognised worldwide as part of rugby's lexicon.
Finding a common name for the sole player at the back of the 3-4-1 scrum seems to have taken some time. In the Home Unions he was still referred to as the lock or lock-forward, as he had been in the 3-2-3 system. Australian reports of the 1937 Tests against the Springboks refer to the position as anchor-man or solo-lock. South Africans called him the eighthman (as many of the old-timers out there still do), in New Zealand he was usually the back-row or back-row forward and to the French he was le troisième ligne centre.
Numbering of players in Tests was a haphazard affair until the 1960s. In the Five Nations, some teams numbered from 1 to 15 from the back, starting with the fullback and finishing with a flanker (so that the back-row man was number 14). France and Ireland often numbered in reverse starting from the front-row, making the middle-man of the loose trio number 7. Wales even used letters throughout the 30s and 40s making him letter N! Players on tour were numbered 1 to 30 and kept their allocated numbers for Tests.
Old Test programmes show that the earliest efforts to number the back-row man with jersey eight were in New Zealand's South Island during the 1930s. For NZ v Australia at Dunedin in 1936 and NZ v SA at Christchurch in 1937 the All Blacks' back-row man wore this number. Abbreviating the South African term eighthman to No.8 originated there and the noted New Zealand rugby historian, Arthur Swan, was among the first to refer to him in print as the "number-eight". When post-war Tests resumed in 1946, New Zealand led the way in regularly numbering their back-row man in the eight jersey.
Curiously, South Africa's Hennie Muller, who played Test rugby between 1949 and 1953 and was universally hailed as the definitive eighthman of his day, never wore an eight shirt in a Test, although by 1951 the British press were referring to him as the team's No 8.
It was not until the 1960s that the shirt number universally matched its position's name in Test matches.
1. The World of Rugby - John Reason & Carwyn James Pub. 1979. 0563162805
2. A History of Rugby - Reyburn, Wallace Pub 1971. 0213004860
3. No.8 John Griffiths Scrum.com Feb 1st, 2009.
4. RFU description of positions. May 22nd, 2011