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Understand Rugby Union - Part 2 - Player Positions

Updated on May 13, 2011

One of the great facets of rugby union is that it caters for players of all shapes and sizes. If your fast, agile and like to run you're likely to become a winger, while on the other hand if you’re a stocky (well built) type of player, but lacks a bit of speed there is a place in the team designed for your attributes. If you are new to rugby and have already watched a few matches on television, you have probably heard players being referred to by the position they play, such as a prop, lock, full back etc. So what do these positions mean and what roles do  the players in each position have? This article will give you a general awareness of the player’s positions on the field and what their roles are. At a later date we will be looking at player positions row by row to give a deeper understanding of their roles.

Player positions on the pitch can be categorized under two separate categories forwards and backs. There are eight forwards and seven backs. The forwards are the players that who line up on the field from 1-8, while the backs line up 9-15.



The forwards, as stated above, are the players who line up with the numbers 1-8 on their backs. They are called forwards as they play more forward towards the opponent’s in-goal area than the backs on their team. The image above of the rugby pitch, shows the line up of two teams if there was a scrum on the have way line. As you can see the players numbered 1-8 are the closest to their opponent’s in-goal area.

Forwards are generally a lot bigger than the backs and physically stronger. If you look at the pitch again the players 1 to 3 are the front row. They are called the front row as they take their place as the front row in the scrum. They are generally stocky built players with very strong muscles in their neck and shoulders to take the force of the scrum. Numbers 4 and 5 are the locks or the second row. They are usually very tall as their primary function is gathering position in the lineout. The font row and the locks together are known as the ‘tight five’. The backrow of the scrum, players 6 to 8 are usually the most athletic players on the team. They are physically very strong but they are also fast as they are ‘loose forwards’. This means they play further away from the ruck than the ‘tight five’ when they want to ball-carry. It is also the forwards job to protect the return of the ball after one of their players is tackled. This means preventing the other team’s players from robbing the ball form them.

In attack the forwards are used to make ‘the hard yards’ towards the opponent’s in-goal area. This involves using big powerful ball-carriers to charge at the opposition around the ruck to gain territory (this means gaining yards towards the opposing team’s in-goal area). Often these ball-carriers are not the fastest but are used to ‘suck in defenders’, as it takes a number of tacklers to bring them down. This makes it easier for the backs when the ball is spread away from the ruck as the opposing team will have fewer defenders free to defend their try-line. The forwards main role in defence is to defend the set pieces, the scrum and line out, and also defend around the rucks.

The Backs

The backs in rugby union are the players who line up 9 to 15. They line up further back from the opposing team’s in-goal area than the forwards do. They run from deep with the ball in hand when the opposing team defence seems stretched. The backs are used in attack to run hard and fast at the opposing team to gain territory. They try to find gaps in the other teams defence by running different attacking lines and using creative back moves to unlock the defence. Backs are generally not as powerful as forwards but are usually much quicker and agile as they have to cover more ground in attack and defence.

The 9 and 10 are called the half-backs and they are the chief playmakers in the team. They decide when to keep the ball with the forwards, when to kick and when to bring their outside backs into the game. They keep their forwards moving forward either by kicking for territory or bringing in big ball-carriers to make ground. The number 9 is the scrumhalf. He is usually the best passer of the ball in the team as his chief role is to pass the ball from the ruck. The outhalf plays outside of the scrumhalf and his primary roles are kicking for territory and bringing his outside backs into play.

The outside backs are made up of the centres, the wingers and the fullback. The centres attack and defend the area in the middle of the field away from the ruck and wear the number 12 and 13 jerseys. They are usually the best all-round players who have good distribution of the ball and have a good mix of physicality and speed. They usually have a very good sidestep. The players numbered 11 and 14 are the wingers. They line up deeper than the centres do and attack and defend the channels closest to the touchline. They are usually the fastest players on the team there primary role is to score tries. The fullback is the player furthest away from the opposition’s in-goal area and they are the last line of defence. They have to be good fielders and kickers of the rugby ball. Most fullbacks in the professional game are great counter attackers with the ball who run with the ball from very deep.

These are generalisations though as some teams include fast powerful players in their backline instead especially in the centre to ‘bash up the middle’ which means to run hard straight lines in the midfield.

In the next article we will be looking at some of the basic rules of the game and what happens when a team break these rules.


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