today is Mar 23, 2023

These are the 15 Player Positions in Rugby (Union)

For American spectators watching Rugby Union for the first time, the sheer number of players on the field (30!) can make things seem chaotic and confusing. But rest assured, game play is highly structured, and each of the 15 positions on each side play a critical, and unique role. 

In this article we'll cover each of the position, its role on the pitch, and what kind of athlete it takes to succeed in that position. If you want to find out more about Rugby positions in general, or if you are trying to figure out which position on the Rugby team makes sense for you personally, hopefull this article will help you learn more.

An aside on Rugby jersey numbers

What is particularly striking to Americans is that player jerseys typically do not show the player names (well, maybe they do sometimes in France or in League, where they do flashy more) and carry only a number. They typically don't realize at first that a player wears a jersey number corresponding to what position they happen to be playing on the field that day, as opposed to a player "owning" a particular number as they do in most sports (If I say "#23", what immediately comes to mind for you?).

I tell my friends it's a little bit like baseball. While baseball players can and do wear jerseys with any number, behind the scenes baseball fielding positions are numbered 1-9. When watching Rugby, it's as if baseball players wore the number corresponding to their position (Pitcher was #1, Catcher was #2, etc.). So, when you see a muddied and bloodied guy (or gal!) wearing #3 and slowly but surely picking up steam as they rumble down the pitch like a tired but angry rhinoceros, you know what position they're playing; and when you see a #15 side-stepping and high-stepping and otherwise prancing before sprinting suddenly up the sidelines like a fleet-footed gazelle with a clean uniform and perfect hair, you know exactly what position they are playing, too. 

All bets are off for when it comes to subs, though. A team will start 15 players (numbered 1-15) and suit up 8 reserves (numbered 16-23). In Rugby, once a starting player is subbed out, that is final. There is no rotation or going back and forth. In devising their game plan, coaches will often plan their reserves with the intention of relieving a certain starter after a particular time, or often the reserves fulfill a utility role (can play several roles), and the coach intends to use them as opportunity calls for, depending on starters' exhaustion and how injuries may develop during the game. So when you see #18 make a cool play and you wonder what position that was, the jersey number itself does not tell you.

Below when describing each position I'll be sure to specify which jersey number they play, too.

The player positions in Rugby

Here is a fun and engaging video that explains the role of all 15 position on a Rugby (Union) team. Below, the video, I've provided a transcription for easier understanding.


(Beginning of video)

Do you like watching rugby, but you don't understand the positions? Or are you looking to start playing or want to help with choosing the best position for you?

if you answered yes to any of these questions then this video is for you.

What's up ladies and gentlemen, Johnny Boy here, back with a new video, and in today's video i'm going to be talking about the traits and roles of each rugby union position so you get a better understanding of the game. So without further ado, let's get started.

Reserves / Substitutes / Impact Players

In Rugby Union, teams are made up of up to 23 players, 15 that play on the field, and eight of them are substitutes.

Subs are known as impact players. This is because they are fresh so they bring loads of energy and loads of power which could potentially turn the match in their team's favor.

Forwards vs. Backs

There is 15 players on the field, divided into two categories. There's forwards and there's backs

Forwards (#1-#8)

There is eight forwards, and they need to be big, strong, and powerful.

This is because they need to be able to beat their opponents in a scrum. They need to be able to use that strength and power to run through tackles, allowing them to gain territory; and running through tackles also creates gaps in the opponent's team defensive line making it easier to gain territory; and finally they need to be able to protect the ball from the defensive side in a ruck.

On the defensive side, they also need to use that strength and power to tackle the opponent, preventing them from gaining territory. Tthey also compete in a ruck to try and win possession of the ball. Tthis is known as counter-rucking.

Backs (#9-#15)

The last seven players, who are not part of the scrum, are known as backs. Backs have to be fast, powerful, and agile. This allows them to build speed in the game to get past the defensive line and score points. They also support the forwards by playing the ball from scrums and line outs.

On the defensive side, they will also try to keep up with opposing teams' backs, preventing them from scoring and doing their own tackles.



Loosehead Prop (#1), Tighthead Prop (#3)

The loosehead and tighthead props, along with the hooker, make up the front row.  The front row is just the position they are in the scrum.

To be a successful prop, he must be big, extremely strong all round. This is to stop your side of the scrum from moving backwards. The props also support the hooker so that they can strike the ball as soon as it's put into the scrum. In the lineout, props should be able to support the jumper to prevent the opposite team winning the ball.

Hooker (#2)

The hooker is in between the two props in the front row and their job is to help keep the scrum from moving backwards, and their main responsibility is to win possession off the ball when it's thrown into the scrum. 

During a lineout, the hooker is responsible for throwing the ball in. It must be in the middle of both teams but still be able to hit the ball accurately so that their jumper who's expecting it receives the ball.

Second Row (#4, #5)

Second row, sometimes known as locks -- this is my position -- the second row's role in the scrum is to use their strength and size to make sure that the scrum doesn't go backwards, while also making sure that the ball goes through once it's been thrown into the scrum.

In a line out you have to be dynamic, aware of the surroundings and accurate with the jumps to ensure that the other team doesn't get the ball.

Flanker (#6, #7)

Flankers make up the back row of the scrum along with the Number Eight.

They support in the pushing in the scrum to ensure that their team wins the ball. To be a flanker, you should have excellent all-round skills. So they need to have strength and power but also they should have some speed and agility. 

On the defensive side, they're the ones that are usually making plays from rucks and mauls and they receive passes from players that have been tackled. On the defensive side, they regularly make their own big tackles. They also take part in rucks and mauls which is why they need a lot of strength as well.

Number Eight (#8)

This position is just known as number eight and their role is similar to the two flankers. They bind on right to the back of the scrum and they're the only ones who are allowed to pick the ball up from the base of the scrum. To be a good number eight, you need to be explosive, dynamic, and quick to think on your feet.

This screenshot from the video gives a great video how the pack (forwards) bind together for a scrum.


Scrum-Half (#9)

The scrum half tends to be one of the smaller players in the team. They are the playmaker and they link the forwards to the backs.

On the offensive side, their role is to control and play the ball from scrums, rucks, and mauls, which is why they need to have good reaction time, good awareness, and quick hands.

On the defensive side, they also need to be aware of the opposition scrum half and what they're going to play from a breakdown. So for example, if the offensive team picks up the ball and runs, they must be ready to tackle.

Fly-Half (#10)

On the offensive side,  they have multiple roles as they are at a point where they can see everything on the pitch. They can orchestrate their team's backs to ensure that every position is covered. If the ball comes to them, they have to decide whether they're going to run, pass, or kick for position. So along with good speed and agility, they must have good awareness and decision making skills. Within a rugby team they are also usually the designated place kicker so they must kick conversions, penalties, and drop goal attempts. So you must be a good kicker.

In the defensive side, they must orchestrate the backs to make sure that they're in place to stop the opponent team from attacking. They also need to have good strength for themselves to make their own tackles.

Left Wing (#11) and Right Wing (#14)

On the offensive side, they're usually the ones that attack past the line of defense to finish off team plays. So they must have good awareness to be able to see gaps in the defensive line. They must be explosive and fast to avoid getting tackled and on the defensive end they need to be able to support their team by making their own tackles to preventing any attacks or gaining territory.

Inside Center (#12) and Outside Center (#13)

The centers must be good at attacking. This means that they need to be fast and explosive. This is so that they can exploit gaps in the defensive line. The inside center is similar to the fly half so they must be good at passing and kicking whereas the outside center is similar to the winger so they need to be fast and good at passing and off loading  the ball to the winger.

Full Back (#15)

In the lineup, this is the person at the very back. They need to be fast and agile as a winger as their role is mainly attacking and finding gaps in the defense. They must be good at catching the ball as they're usually the ones that are receiving the ball from a kick.

On the defensive end, they must still be strong and able to tackle well.

While all these positions have their unique roles, players must be flexible and well-rounded because it's a very dynamic sport. So you might find yourself in a position where you have to do what other positions do. While you might not be as good as them, you should be able to hold your own.

So which Rugby position should you choose?

So if you're really big, you're strong, and you've got loads of power, you'll fit in very well in the first and second row.

If you're big, strong, and powerful, and have some speed and agility you can play very well in the back row.

If you're someone who's a little bit smaller, but you have good strength, good all-round fitness, and good decision-making, then you would suit being a scrum half.

If you're someone who has great all-around fitness, as a good kicker and good team leading skills then you'd suit the fly-half position.

And if you're good at throwing, catching, got great endurance, great agility, quick decision making, then you'd suit being the center or full back.

So i hope this video has helped you gain a better understanding of each rugby position and that it's given you a rough idea of which position would best suit you.

And remember, the best way to get started is to just get involved, and you will learn your strengths and weaknesses as you go ...

(End of video)

Summary of Rugby player postitions

If you draw a map of all the players on the field and where they theoretically stand (e.g. where they would line up if their team is awarded a scrum), a typical diagram looks like this (screenshot taken from the video above):

Where the numbers represent:.

  1. 1. Loosehead Prop
  2. 2. Hooker
  3. 3. Tightead Prop
  4. 4. Lock
  5. 5. Lock
  6. 6. Flanker
  7. 7. Flanker
  8. 8. Number Eight
  9. 9. Scrum-half
  10. 10. Fly-half
  11. 11. Left Wing
  12. 12. Inside Center
  13. 13. Outside Center
  14. 14. Right Wing
  15. 15. Full-back

Rugby position names evolve over time

We see that every position has both a number and a name (well, all except the un-imaginative Number Eight). Certain position may even have several names, depending on how traditional your Rugby environment is.

  • "Flanker" seems pretty universal today, but just a few decades back I recall it equally referred to as a "wing-forward".
  • Terminology by quarters: In the olden golden days of Rugby (and I suppose depending a lot on the geography, eg. North (British Isles) vs South (South Africa/ Australia/ New Zealand) the scrum-half and fly-half were considered to be "half-backs" (it's in the name, after all); outside center and wing were apparently referred to as "three-quarter backs" at one time; and the fullback ... has been and shall ever be the "full-back". It then makes perfect sense when you consider that Rugby's child, American football, inherited the same concepts from its Big Daddy, with its positions of not only the quarter-back, but also the half-back and the full-back, terms denoting their original distance from the football line of scrimmage, same as the rugby positions denoting their distance behind the scrimmage --> scrummage --scrum.
    • Okay, the half-back and full-back positions are admittedly fading away with the specialization of the single running back.
    • And talking about inheriting good looks from Daddy, if you have ever wondered why in American football it's called a "touch down", when there is in fact no (longer any) touching down, you have officially been given a clue.
  • Not exactly terminology drift, but think about #4 and #5. They play in the second row of the scrum, so collectively they are The Second Row. But, individually, they are also referred to as "Locks". Now, in French or Spanish they are referred to as "Pillars", which is actually my favorite name because I think it describes the position best.
  • More fun history here.