Rugby union positions

A rugby union team is made up of 15 players: eight forwards, numbered from 1 to 8; and seven backs, numbered from 9 to 15. Depending upon the competition, there may be up to seven replacements.

Each player has a fixed role with specialist positional skills and each team uses the same formation, with only minor variations; in this respect it is different from both football with its various formations (4-3-3, 3-5-2, etc.) and cricket, where players are commonly moved from one field position to another (e.g. from silly mid-on to deep cover point).

Early rugby did no more than distinguish in tactics between the great bulk of the players who played as forwards and the relative few who played back defensively as "tends", as in goaltenders. After a while, the attacking or at least counter-attacking possibilities of playing close behind the scrimmage (which later came to be called "scrummage") came to be recognized, and some players stationed themselves between the forwards and tends as "half-tends". It being seen that the players outside scrimmage (the "pack", i.e. the forwards) were not limited to a defensive role, the tends and half-tends were renamed "back" and "half back" positions.

As the game became more sophisticated, backs positioned at different depths (i.e. distances behind the forwards) were further differentiated into half back, three quarters (the fraction 3/4) back, and full back, according to British nomenclature, which was eventually adopted worldwide, with the word, 'back," often omitted for brevity from the half back ("half") and three quarters back ("three quarter") names, and "fullback" as a single word.


Individual players' positions are made clear by the number they wear, as this generally indicates their role on the pitch (unless they are a substitute or have switched position during the match). This means a player does not get a personal squad number for his entire career, as in most American sports or in football. The International Rugby Board (IRB) has laid down a numbering scheme for international matches, which is adopted at almost all levels of the sport.

The main role of the forwards is to gain and retain possession of the ball. They take part in set pieces of the scrum and the line-out. Generally, forwards are larger than the backs, and were traditionally stronger but slower and less agile. However, the modern game has seen a change in the athleticism of forwards - many are now just as fast and adept in open play as their counterparts in the backs. Forwards also have a role in ball carrying, but generally do so by driving into the opposing forwards. The Laws of the Game define the terms prop, hooker, locks, flankers and number eights and clearly state that a 3-2-3 or 3-4-1 formation must be used at scrums.

The role of the backs is to take the ball won by the forwards and score points, either by running or kicking the ball. They are usually more agile and faster than forwards, but not as strong. The key attribute for most positions in the back line is pace - however, the various specialist positions also require different skills, for example, the kicking abilities needed by a good flyhalf or fullback. Again, the type of person who would traditionally play in the backs - small, agile, fast - is changing, with the advent of professionalism bringing increased size and strength into the backs.

The following diagram locates the various positions in the 15-man team. All members of the starting 15 wear shirts numbered from 1 to 15 and keyed to their positions (though alternatives exist); these numbers appear on the diagram below. The first eight players, known as forwards or the pack, play in the scrum. The remaining seven players play as the backs.*

''*{Technically, the number 9 player, the scrum-half, is neither a forward nor a back, but more of a joint, like the hinge between the two. Nevertheless, scrumhalves tend to possess common backline attributes, most often being small and quick, and are often converts from the backline, i.e. former wings, etc.}''

Alternative names for positions

PropProp forward
HookerHook, rake
LockSecond row, lock forward
FlankerWing Forwards, breakaway, flank, flank forward
Number 8Eightman, eighthman, lock forward
Scrum halfInside half, half-back, scrum off, scrummie
Fly halfOutside half, out half, stand-off, five-eighth, first five-eighth, first five, fly, pivot
Inside centreSecond five-eighth, first centre, second five or centre
Outside centreCentre, centre three-quarter, second centre
WingerWingman, wing threequarter
FullbackCustodian, Sweeper

Collective terms for positions

Front rowThe props and hooker
Second RowBoth locks
Tight forwards or Tight 5 or Front fiveThe combined front row and second row
Flankers or wing forwardsThe open and blind side flankers
PackThe forwards
Loose forwards (Loosies) or Back rowThe flankers and the number 8
Half backsScrum half and flyhalf
MidfieldFly half and centres
Inside backsThe inside centre, flyhalf and scrumhalf
Five-eighthsThe flyhalf and inside centre (1st and 2nd five eighths)
Three-quarters / Three-quarter lineWingers and centres
Back threeThe fullback and the wingers
Outside backsThe outside centre, wings and full back

The fly-half is alternatively called the "stand-off half", since they are the half-back that stands off from the scrum rather than close to it. In the southern hemisphere, especially in New Zealand, this position is sometimes referred to as 'first five-eighth', or just 'five-eighth' - see below.

The use of the terms 'open' and 'blind' can also be confused. The two flankers are typically arranged so that one binds to the scrum on the open side of the field. This will usually be his position throughout the game, with the other flanker always taking the closed 'blind' side - also called the short side. Rarely these flankers interchange roles, simply taking the left or right side of the scrummage, irrespective of field position.

Centres will always line up as inside and outside centre - it is rare for them to always take left and right positions. For the winger, it is different - he/she will be either on the left or right side, so may be referred to as either the blindside or openside winger, depending on his position for a particular play in the game.

Northern Hemisphere

The IRB standard names tend to reflect Northern Hemisphere usage although flyhalf is still often known as 'outside half' in Britain and 'outhalf' in Ireland.

New Zealand Terms

In New Zealand the fly half is referred to as the first five-eighth (or more often, just "1st 5"), implying a slightly deeper position than halfback (the term halfback can cause confusion since some countries use it to refer solely to the scrum half, while other countries apply it to both the scrum half and the fly half). The inside centre is called the second five-eighth (or "2nd 5") implying a more forward position than a three quarter back and the outside centre as simply "Centre".

Flankers may also, though this is more historic usage, be referred to as "wing-forwards" (also an archaic term for an obsolete position associated with the 2-3-2 scrum that was outlawed in the 1930s), or together with the No 8 as "loose-forwards", or even "loosies", since they can quickly detach from scrums. The front row and locks are often referred to as the "tight 5".

Australian Terms

In Australia, the second row of the scrum are often referred to as both "second row" and "locks". The forwards on either side of the locks are known as "flankers" with the No. 8 known as the "No. 8". Australians collectively refer to the flankers and No. 8 as the "back-row", with flankers and No. 8 also often individually called "back-rowers". Props and Hookers are known collectively as "front rowers".

In the backs, the terms often overlap with that of the other code of rugby, rugby league, with fly halves called "5/8s or five-eights" and scrumhalves "halfbacks".

Other languages

Many rugby union players in South Africa are native Afrikaans speakers, and use positional terms unique to that language, although in many cases the terms are a literal translation from the English. In South America, a combination of Spanish and English position names is used.

EnglishAfrikaansFrenchItalianSpanishSpanish (South America)IrishWelsh
PropStutPilierPilonePilarPilarTacaY Rheng Flaen
HookerHakkerTalonneurTallonatoreTalonador / HookerHookerCaiteoirBachwr
FlankerFlankTroisièmes LignesTerza Linea Fuori
Tercera LíneaAla, Tercera LíneaTríú LíneBlaenasgellwr
LockSlotDeuxièmes LignesSeconda LineaSegunda LíneaSegunda LíneaGlas, Dara LíneYr Ail Reng
Number eightAgtsteman (lit. 'eighthman')Troisième Ligne CentreTerza linea media
Terza linea centro
Numero 8
Tercera Línea Centro u "Ocho"Octavo, Ocho, Tercera LíneaUimhir a hochtY Rheng Ol
Scrum halfSkrumskakel (lit. 'scrum-link')Demi de mêléeMediano di mischiaMedio melé, Medio ScrumMedio ScrumLeath-chlibirtMewnwr
Fly-halfLosskakel (lit. 'loose-link')Demi d'ouverture, OuvreurApertura
Mediano d'apertura
AperturaApertura, Medio AperturaEitilteoirMaswr
Tre quarti centro
Centro (Primero y Segundo)In-side (Primero y Segundo), CentroLár na páirceCanolwr
Tre quarti ala
Ala (Izquierda y Derecha)Wing (Izquierdo y Derecho)EiteoirAsgellwr
Full-backHeelagterArrièreEstremoExtremo o Zaguero / FullbackFullbackLán-chosantóirCefnwr


15. Fullback

The full back stands back to cover defensive options as a 'sweeper' behind the main line of defence removed from the other backs principally to field any opposition kicks. As the last line of defence, good tackling skills are desirable.

They have to catch the high kicks referred to as "up and unders", "Garryowens" or "bombs". Having taken a catch, the full back may choose to return the kick, and so good tactical awareness and kicking skills are required. Increasingly often, full backs are used to start counter-attacking moves from depth. Thus, they need to have excellent attacking skills, pace and open field running prowess. In attack, the full back generally joins the three-quarter line between the outside centre and the openside wing, providing the attacking team with an extra outside back.

Fullbacks in the International Rugby Hall of Fame include: Serge Blanco (France), Don Clarke (New Zealand), Gavin Hastings (Scotland and Lions), Andy Irvine (Scotland and Lions), Tom Kiernan (Ireland and Lions), George Nepia (New Zealand), and JPR Williams (Wales and Lions).

See also: Fullback (rugby)


14. and 11. Wing

The wings act as "finishers" on movements by scoring tries. The idea is that space should be created by the forwards and backs inside the wingers so that once they receive the ball, they have a clear run for the try-line. Wings are almost always the quickest members of the team, but also need to be able to side step and otherwise avoid opponents in order to score tries. In modern games, wingers often "come off the wing" to provide extra men in the midfield, in the same vein as a full back, particularly if play has moved away from their wing. Traditionally, wingers are small and fast but since the game became professional (and largely due to Jonah Lomu), wingers are often as big as forwards. Wingers of this variety are often used as extra flankers to gain the "hard yards" by carrying the ball directly into contact with opponents, gaining ground slowly through phased play.

Wingers often act as additional full backs on opposition kicks. In addition to this responsibility, they must get back from an opposition kick to give the full back options on either side. The modern game means that the back three tend to act as a unit in fielding kicks and counterattacking, rather than all responsibility lying with the full back. Wingers need to have all the skills of a full back, though the emphasis would be on attack rather than defence. As such, many players are as competent on the wing as at full back.

A common tactic is to have the winger receive the ball and then cut towards the centre of the pitch. This changes the direction of play, which may catch the opposition off guard, or may create space for the outside centre to receive a switch pass or "scissors pass".

A modern use of the wing is as a link player. They retain all the traditional skills of a wing, but are able to combine these with skills more traditionally associated with half backs. As the play goes through multiple phases, the scrum-half or fly-half may be taken out of the play. If this occurs the blind side wing can step in to perform a creative role. Good examples of players filling this role include Austin Healey, Breyton Paulse, Shane Williams and more recently Sitiveni Sivivatu.

Wings in the International Rugby Hall of Fame are: André Boniface (France), David Campese (Australia), Gerald Davies (Wales and Lions), Ieuan Evans (Wales and Lions), John Kirwan (New Zealand), Jonah Lomu (New Zealand), and Tony O'Reilly (Ireland and Lions).

See also: Winger (sport)

13. Outside centre & 12. Inside centre

Centres need to have a strong all-round game: they need to be able to break through opposition lines and pass the ball accurately. When attack turns into defence they need to be strong in the tackle. Usually the two centres are divided into outside centre and inside centre, though sometimes teams play with left and right centres.

The inside centre is typically bigger and more creative than the outside centre. In defence or attack, the inside centre is always in the thick of the action, drawing the opposition's defence, making the breaks to make the space for the outside centre and dishing out the tackles in defence along with the forwards. Some of the skills of the fly-half, such as distribution and kicking, can be advantageous to inside centres, as they may be expected to act as fly-halves if the normal fly-half is involved in a ruck or maul.

The outside centre tends to be the faster, nippier of the two centres. They are the "rapiers" that are given the ball, normally via the fly half, or inside centre to make breaks through the opposition backs before offloading to the wingers after drawing the last line of defence. Good size and tackle breaking skills are very important for outside centres to have. They may also need to be very aggressive in defence, especially when a team is using a rush up style defence.

Centres in the International Rugby Hall of Fame include: André Boniface (France), Danie Gerber (South Africa), Mike Gibson (Ireland and Lions), Tim Horan (Australia), Jo Maso (France), Gwyn Nicholls (Wales and Lions), Tony O'Reilly (Ireland and Lions), and Philippe Sella (France).


10. Fly-half

The fly-half position is a portmanteau of flying half back. This position is one of the most influential on the pitch. The fly-half makes key tactical decisions during a game — whether to kick for space or tactical advantage, move the ball to his outside backs, return the ball to his forwards to drive on to or run with the ball himself. An ideal fly-half should be a fast and deceptive runner, be able to make decisions quickly, direct the backline on defence and attack, have excellent kicking and handling skills and the ability to cope under pressure. Strong leadership skills are crucial for this position, as well as strong defensive skills.

Games are rarely won on tries alone, and a fly-half who is also the goal kicker (which is often the case) can be the most important player in the side.

Fly-halves in the International Rugby Hall of Fame include: Phil Bennett (Wales and Lions), Naas Botha (South Africa), Mark Ella (Australia), Grant Fox (New Zealand), Barry John (Wales and Lions), Jack Kyle (Ireland and Lions), Michael Lynagh (Australia), Cliff Morgan (Wales and Lions), Bennie Osler (South Africa), and Hugo Porta (Argentina).

9. Scrum-half

Scrum halves form the all-important link between the forwards and the backs, and are invariably at the centre of the action. A scrum half is normally relatively small but with a high degree of vision, the ability to react to situations very quickly, and good handling skills, as well as the ability to spin the ball with great ease off both hands.

They are often the first tackler in defence and are behind every scrum, maul or ruck to get the ball out and maintain movement. They put the ball into the scrum and collect it afterwards; they also are allowed to stand further forward than other backs at a line-out to try to catch knock downs from the jumper.

It is also not unusual to have talkative scrum-halves in competitive situations. Though technically illegal, most scrum-halves will subtly alert the referee to fouls and infringements committed by the opposing team.

Scrum-halves in the International Rugby Hall of Fame include: Ken Catchpole (Australia), Danie Craven (South Africa), Gareth Edwards (Wales and Lions), Nick Farr-Jones (Australia) and Joost van der Westhuizen (South Africa). Craven and Edwards are also members of the IRB Hall of Fame.


Front row

1. Loosehead prop & 3. Tighthead prop

The role of both the loose- and tighthead props is to support the hooker in the scrum and to provide effective, dynamic support for the jumpers in the line-out. Along with the second row, the props provide the main power in the push forward in the scrum. For this reason they are usually the strongest and heaviest players in the team. Under modern rules non-specialists are not allowed to play as props (or hooker) as specialist skills are required to ensure the scrum does not collapse, a situation which can be very dangerous sometimes resulting in crushing or breaking of the neck and spine. If there are not enough props or hookers on either team (and no replacements are available), uncontested scrums will be set.

A tighthead prop is so called because they pack down on the right-hand side of the scrum and so (because the players engage to the left of their opponents) their head fits between the opposing loosehead prop and hooker. In contrast, the loosehead prop packs down on the left-hand side where their head is outside that of the opposing tighthead prop. Although it may look to the neutral observer that the two positions are quite similar (and some players have the ability to play on both sides of the scrum), the technical challenges of each are quite different. Jason Leonard (England and Lions) and Gethin Jenkins (Wales and Lions) are rare in being able to prop on either side at the top level.

The laws of the game require the tighthead prop to bind with his right arm outside the left upper arm of his opposing loosehead prop and similarly they restrict what the loosehead prop can do with his left arm. Although the scrum half may put the ball in on either side of the scrum, he is unlikely to choose the tighthead side because otherwise the opposing hooker would be between him or her and his or her own hooker. Hence, the laws implicitly require the loosehead prop to be on the left side of the scrum.

Props are also in the position of being able to direct the movement of the scrum in moving side to side to prevent the other team's scrum from "wheeling" the set scrum and forcing another "put in" from the opposing side.

Outside of the scrum and line-outs Props use their great strength and weight to win rucks and mauls for their teams and to make large drives forwards with the ball.

Props in the International Rugby Hall of Fame include: Jason Leonard (England and Lions), Syd Millar (Ireland and Lions) and Wilson Whineray (New Zealand). Whineray is also a member of the IRB Hall of Fame.

2. Hooker

Hookers are a key position in attacking and defensive play. The name is derived from the fact that hookers use their feet to 'hook' the ball in the scrum; because of the pressure put on the body by the scrum it is considered to be one of the most dangerous positions to play. They also normally throw the ball in at line-outs. Hookers have more in common with back row forwards than props or locks only during line-outs as they have a roving role at line-outs. Hookers typically are a key player in the scrum as they are the main force pushing and resisting, although some teams give the responsibility to the props. In addition, hookers may act as an extra prop in the scrum, instead of contesting the feed, to wreak havoc on opposition feeds.

The hooker is assisted by the props in scrums and often leads a ruck. In defensive play, the hooker will regularly be the main attacker in most open-ended plays. In more complicated moves, the Hooker may remain a defence for the backs. Hookers are usually the leaders in most attacking moves and tend to control the forwards.

Hookers in the International Rugby Hall of Fame include: Sean Fitzpatrick (New Zealand) and Keith Wood (Ireland and Lions).

4. & 5. Lock

Locks are almost always the tallest players on the team and so are the primary targets at line-outs. At line-outs, locks must jump aggressively, usually being lifted by team-mates, to catch the ball and get it to the scrum half or at least get the first touch so that the ball comes down on their own side.

The two locks stick their heads between the two props and the hooker in the scrums. They are also responsible for keeping the scrum square and the front row together and providing power to shift it forward. (This position is referred to as the "engine room".)

Locks are very tall, athletic and have an excellent standing jump along with good strength. They also make good ball carriers, bashing holes in the defence around the ruck and maul. They also have to push the rucks and mauls and are the main figures of rucks and mauls.

Locks in the International Rugby Hall of Fame include: Bill Beaumont (England and Lions), Gordon Brown (Scotland and Lions), Frik du Preez (South Africa), John Eales (Australia), Martin Johnson (England and Lions), Brian Lochore (New Zealand), Willie John McBride (Ireland and Lions), and Colin Meads (New Zealand). Eales is also a member of the IRB Hall of Fame.

Back row

6. Blindside flanker & 7. Openside flanker

Flanker is a fairly dynamic position with the fewest set responsibilities during the game. It is their responsibility to clear up messy balls to start a new phase of play, meaning they play a major role in maintaining/gaining possession after handling errors.

In the scrum, flankers do less pushing than the tight five, but they have to break away quickly and attempt to tackle the opposing backs if the opposition wins the scrum; and to cover their own half backs if they win the scrum. Due to their role in the scrum, flankers should be fairly heavy whilst still having speed and power.

Considering how dynamic this position is, flankers can adapt slightly to their own style of play; for example, they can become big figures in tackling and mauls, or use their speed to run with the backs for tactical manoeuvres.

Flankers in the International Rugby Hall of Fame include: Dave Gallaher (New Zealand), Michael Jones (New Zealand), Ian Kirkpatrick (New Zealand), Graham Mourie (New Zealand), Francois Pienaar (South Africa), Jean Prat (France), Jean-Pierre Rives (France), Fergus Slattery (Ireland and Lions), and Wavell Wakefield (England).

8. Number eight

Number eight is the only position that does not have a specific name in English and is simply referred to as 'number eight'. The modern number eight has the physical strength of a tight forward along with the mobility and pace of other loose forwards (he is often the fastest loose forward in the pack). The number eight packs down at the rear of the scrum, controlling the movement of the ball to the scrum-half with his feet. The number 8 is the position where the ball enters the backline from the scrum and, hence, both fly half and inside centre take their lead from the number 8 who, as the hindmost player in the scrum, can elect to pick and run with the ball like a back. As a result, the number 8 has similar opportunities to a back to run from set plays.

They are normally tall and athletic and used as an option to win the ball from the back of the lineout. Like flankers they do less of the pushing than locks or props, but need to be quick to cover opposition half-backs. A number eight should be a key ball-winner in broken play, and occasionally a 'battering ram' at the front of rucks; he should also be able to break the opposition's line like his blindside flanker counterpart and the centres.

Number eights in the International Rugby Hall of Fame include: Mervyn Davies (Wales and British Lions), Morne du Plessis (South Africa), Brian Lochore (New Zealand) and Hennie Muller (South Africa).

See also


External links

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