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Rugby union positions: Map

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A normal rugby union team formation illustrating each of the positions and their respective numbers.
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.

Overview

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 fly-half 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.

Alternative names for positions

Prop Prop forward
Hooker Hook, rake
Lock Second row, lock forward
Flanker Wing forward, breakaway, flank, flank forward
Number 8 Eight, eightman, eighthman, lock forward
Scrum half Inside half, half-back, scrum off, scrummie
Fly-half Outside half, out half, stand-off, stand-off half, five-eighth, first five-eighth, first five, fly, pivot
Inside centre Second five-eighth, first centre, second five or centre
Outside centre Centre, centre three-quarter, second centre
Winger Wing, wingman, wing three-quarter
Fullback Custodian, sweeper, number 15


Collective terms for positions

Front row The props and hooker
Second Row Both locks
Tight forwards or Tight 5 or Front five The combined front row and second row
Flankers or wing forwards The open and blind side flankers
Loose forwards (Loosies) or Back row The flankers and the number 8
Pack The forwards
Half backs Scrum half and fly-half
Midfield Fly-half and centres
Inside backs The inside centre, fly-half and scrumhalf
Five-eighths The fly-half and inside centre (1st and 2nd five eighths)
Three-quarters / Three-quarter line Wingers and centres
Back three The fullback and the wingers
Outside backs The 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 and Australia, this position is usually 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 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 fly-half is still often known as 'outside half' in Britain and 'outhalf' in Ireland.

New Zealand terms

In New Zealandmarker 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 "break-aways" 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.

English Afrikaans French Italian Spanish (Spain) Spanish (South America) Irish Welsh
Prop Stut Pilier Pilone Pilar, Pilier Pilar Taca Prop, Rheng flaen
Hooker Haker Talonneur Tallonatore Talonador Hooker Caiteoir Bachwr
Flanker Flank Troisième Ligne Aile Terza (linea) ala

Flanker
Tercera Línea, Flanker Ala, Tercera Línea Tríú Líne Blaenasgellwr
Lock Slot Deuxième Ligne Seconda Linea Segunda Línea Segunda Línea Glas, Dara Líne Clo, Ail reng
Number eight Agtsteman (lit.
'eighthman') Troisième Ligne Centre Terza linea media

Terza (linea) centro

Numero 8
Tercera Línea Centro u "Ocho" Octavo, Ocho, Tercera Línea Uimhir a hocht Wythwr
Scrum half Skrumskakel (lit.
'scrum-link') Demi de mêlée Mediano di mischia Medio melé Medio Scrum Leath-chlibirt Mewnwr
Fly-half Losskakel (lit.
'loose-link') Demi d'ouverture, Ouvreur Apertura

Mediano d'apertura
Apertura, Medio de Apertura Apertura, Medio Apertura Eitilteoir Maswr
Centre Senter Centre Centro (Primo e Secondo)

Tre quarti centro
Centro (Primero y Segundo) In-side (Primero y Segundo), Centro Lár na páirce Canolwr
Wing (Left and Right) Vleuel Ailier Ala

Tre quarti ala
Ala (Izquierda y Derecha) Wing (Izquierdo y Derecho) Eiteoir Asgellwr
Full-back Heelagter Arrière Estremo Zaguero Fullback Lán-chosantóir Cefnwr


Backs

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", "Garryowen" 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

Three-quarters

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.

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). O'Reilly is also a member of the IRB Hall of Fame. Bill Maclagan, a 19th-century player for Scotland and the Lions who played at three-quarters, which eventually evolved into the modern position of wing, is a member of the IRB Hall of Fame but not the International Rugby Hall of Fame.

See also: Winger

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 has recently seen a development in its role. Now, they share many qualities of the fly-half, for example, kicking, distribution. They must also be a very good tackler, and usually lead a rush defence if it is called. For example,the current Australian team often interchanges fly-half and inside centre regularly during the course of the match. In New Zealand inside centre is referred to as "Second five-eighth".

A good centre will be one of the most versatile players in the game: it is easy to switch from there to the wing, fullback, or fly-half. They vary in physique, which usually affects their game plan. A big centre will be used for crash balls or switches, whereas a smaller centre may change his game to become a more fly-half related centre.The outside centre also sees two roles. 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. The first type of outside centre is the attacking one. This type makes them faster and very agile, almost like a winger. The second is the defensive, who draw attention away from the wingers to try and give them space. A good mix of the two is what most teams look for.

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), Ian McGeechan (Scotland and Lions), Gwyn Nicholls (Wales and Lions), Tony O'Reilly (Ireland and Lions), Frank Bunce (All Blacks) and Philippe Sella (France). McGeechan, O'Reilly and Sella are also members of the IRB Hall of Fame.

Half-backs

10. Fly-half

A fly-half is crucial to a team's game plan. They are usually the one who calls set moves, or makes tactical decisions. They need to be quick-thinking in a game; such as the speed at which a situation is deteriorated, they need to be able to communicate with all their backs and adapt them to the attacking or defending situation. Usually, the fly-half is the kicker of the team, a role often shared with the centres or fullback. A lot of fly-halves are goal kickers, and make most kicks for the team, whether it's tactical, or for touch.

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), Ian McGeechan (Scotland and Lions), Cliff Morgan (Wales and Lions), Bennie Osler (South Africa), and Hugo Porta (Argentina). Kyle, McGeechan, Morgan, Osler and Porta are also members of the IRB Hall of Fame.

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.

Utility backs

A few players are capable of playing multiple back positions, even at Test level. Such players are often termed "utility backs". Although no true utility back is in either the International Rugby or IRB Halls of Fame, some examples of modern utility backs include:
  • Mike Catt, England and Lions — Earned multiple Test caps at fullback, fly-half and centre, and one on the wing.
  • Matt Giteau, Australia. — Has 68 test caps, distributed amongst scrum half, fly-half and inside centre.
  • Chris Paterson, Scotland — Has started 45 Tests at wing, 30 at fullback, and 11 at fly-half.
  • François Steyn, South Africa — Has multiple Test caps at every back position except scrum-half.
  • Adam Ashley-Cooper, Australia — Has 31 Test caps to date, including starts at wing, fullback and both inside and outside centre.


Forwards

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, where no pushing is permitted, and the team putting the ball into the scrum has to win it.

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

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). Millar and Whineray are also members 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-out. 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). Du Preez, Eales and McBride are also members of the IRB Hall of Fame. Fairy Heatlie, a South African great of the era around 1900, is in the IRB Hall of Fame but not the International Rugby 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. The blindside should be the bigger, more destructive defensive player whilst the openside should be the quicker of the two, who along with the scrum half and the number eight, offers a good quick link to the backs.

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 pace to run with the backs for tactical manoeuvres and get through the opposition's defence. Opensides such as Richie McCaw, Serge Betsen and Neil Back were adept at the breakdown either slowing the ball down or stealing ball at the ruck. On the opposite side of the argument are players like Martyn Williams and David Wallace who provide continuity between the pack and the backs.

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" or "eighthman". 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 eight 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 eight 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 eight 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



References



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