Rugby positions are defined by where players line up on the field during a scrum. Unlike some other sports, the numbers on player jerseys are specific to their position.
This article gives an overview of positions and roles in Rugby Union. We have links to in-depth articles on each position if you want to take a deep dive.
Other Types Of Rugby
This article is about Rugby Union, the version of the sport with fifteen players.
We have other articles on sevens rugby and touch rugby:
Diagram Of Rugby Positions By Number
Here is a diagram of how fifteen players are positioned on the field when they are awarded a scrum. We are showing the number on their backs and the names of the position.
It’s a lot to digest, so we’ll break it down by each position in the rest of the article.
Before we get down to the level of fifteen positions, let’s take a look at a more way basic way to categorize rugby players.
Forwards Versus Backs
The most basic way to categorize rugby positions is into forwards and backs.
In the diagram, the players numbered one to eight are forming a scrum. These eight players are the forwards.
Forwards use strength to push in the scrum and height to compete in lineouts. When they carry the ball, they run hard at opposition players to bash their way past them.
The players wearing nine to fifteen are the backs. They typically pass, kick, and run more than forwards. They seek to evade contact through agility.
Backs direct the attacking moves in open play and defend in wider positions.
The French like to describe the distinction as the piano shifters and the piano players. Forwards do the grunt work, while the backs bring the flair.
Usually, that’s a back talking!
Forwards, on the other hand, may take this view:
Eight Forward Positions
The forward positions get their names from their roles in the scrum.
We have an in-depth article on scrum positions, but we’ll summarize the details here.
When the forwards pack down against each other to form a scrum, each team’s forwards line up in three rows that also have specific names:
- front row
- second row
- back row
You’ll hear players being described as “front row players”, second rows, and back rows.
Front Row Players
There are three front row players: two props and a hooker.
Loosehead and tighthead props
The loosehead prop forward wears the number one jersey and packs down on the left of the front row.
The tighthead prop forward wears the number three jersey and packs down on the right of the front row.
We have an in-depth article on loosehead and tighthead props in rugby union.
I’ll mention here that they get their name from their role to “prop up” the scrum.
The hooker wears the number two jersey and packs down in the middle of the front row.
The hooker has a vital role in the scrum and in lineouts.
In a scrum, the hooker nudges the ball backward to the number eight at the back. This is known as “hooking” the ball and it’s how hookers get their name.
Hookers also throw the ball into the lineout. We have an in-depth article on hookers in rugby union.
Second Row Positions: The Locks
The two players in the second row are known as lock forwards or simply locks.
One lock wears the number four jersey and the other lock wears number five.
When locks pack down in the scrum, they grip onto the props in front of them (this is known as binding).
Their role is to both push forward and to keep the scrum stable. This is known as “locking” the scrum, and it’s where they get their names.
Locks are also the players most likely to jump and catch in the lineout. That’s why they are the tallest players on the pitch.
We have an in-depth article on locks in rugby union.
Back Row Positions
The three players in the back row of the scrum are the:
- blindside flanker
- openside flanker
- number eight
The flankers wear the number six and number seven jersey. The blindside flanker usually wears six and the openside flanker wears seven.
What do “blindside” and “openside” mean?
It refers to how much distance there is from each side of the scrum to their nearest touchline. The side with the most distance is the openside, and the blindside has the least distance.
When the back three players pack down in the scrum, the openside is on whichever side has the most space.
There are subtle differences between the blindside and openside positions which we explain in our article on the roles of flankers.
The number eight is the only player in a rugby team that doesn’t get a catchy moniker!
In the United States, the position is sometimes referred to as the “eight man” but that hasn’t caught on in other parts of the world.
This player has a vital role at the back of the scrum, which we explain in our in-depth article on the role of the number eight.
Aside from the scrum, the back row also have important roles in open play.
They must support the backs by taking and giving passes during attacking moves. They are also key at protecting possession of the ball when a teammate is tackled.
Of course, the opposition back row players are trying to steal the ball at the same time. We go into this part of the sport in our article on rucking.
“Half back” is a relatively old-fashioned term but you’ll still hear it being used to describe the scrum half and outhalf pairing.
These two backs stand closest to the scrum.
The scrum half wears the nine jersey.
As you would expect from the name, the player has a very specific role at scrum time. They feed the ball down the middle of the two packs and move to collect it from under the feet of the number eight.
Scrum halves also follow the ball around the pitch. They are specialists at passing the ball after their teammate has been tackled to the ground.
We have an in-depth article on the role of the scrum half in rugby union.
Outhalf / Fly Half
There are more names for the player who wears the number ten jersey than any other position.
The outhalf directs the attack in open play by receiving the ball from the scrum half and making the critical choice of what to do next: pass, kick, or run.
They often take all the penalty and conversion kicks for their team. Their success can be the winning and losing of a game.
We dive deeper into this vital role in our in-depth article on the outhalf in rugby union.
There are two centres in a rugby team. They wear the twelve and thirteen jersey.
The number twelve is typically known as the inside centre. This player stands closer to the outhalf.
The number thirteen is typicallly known as the outside centre. This player stays further wide in attack and defense.
In the early history of the sport, rugby involved a large mass of men surrounding the ball-carrier and heaving backward and forward.
The addition of centres positioned in the middle of the field gives us the open play of the modern sport.
A typical attacking move is to pass the ball from the outhalf through the hands of both centres with the outside centre giving the final pass to the winger near the sideline.
There are subtle differences in attack and defense for the twelve and thirteen. We go into this in more detail in our article on the roles of centres in rugby union.
There are two wingers in a rugby team. They are typically positioned nearest the left and right touchlines.
The left winger wears the eleven jersey and the right winger wears the fourteen jersey.
Wingers often play both left and right throughout their career. In general, left-footed players tend to be left wingers to take advantage of a stronger kicking action up the left touchline.
There are other subtle differences between the two positions. We do into more details in our article on the role of wingers in rugby union.
Both wingers are expected to be excellent at receiving a pass and using speed and footwork to evade defenders and get over the tryline for five-point scores.
This can be some of the most exciting parts of rugby.
Well, we’ve finally got to the last position on the field. This player is also furthest back from his teammates.
This is why the position has the name of fullback.
Fullbacks are particularly noticeable when the opposition uses a strategy of kicking long high balls into the backfield of their opponent.
The fullback is a specialist at jumping and catching a high-dropping ball. Meanwhile, the opposing fullback may have raced forward to jump and catch the same rugby ball!
Fullbacks must have a strong kicking game to return the ball into opposition territory. Many fullbacks are “converted” out halves.
There are several elite professional players who can switch between the ten and fifteen positions even at international level. Beauden Barrett does this with the All Blacks.
Check out our article on the role of fullbacks in rugby union for a more in-depth look.
Frequently Asked Questions
Here are some quick answers to common questions.
What positions get cauliflower ears?
Cauliflower ear is developed from frequent rubbing and chafing of the ears in the scrum.
This means that forwards are most likely to develop cauliflowers.
Many take protective action against this! Check out our article on why rugby players tape their ears!
What positions score the most?
In general, wingers score the most amount of tries in rugby.
This is illustrated by the chart below that shows the average number of tries scored by position in the 2019 World Cup.
What position is the easiest?
If you’re starting out in rugby, we recommend that you play on the wing for your first few matches. This tends to be the easiest position for beginners.
Why? Basically, wingers make a low amount of tackles and don’t get involved in complex formations like the scrum or lineout.
We explain more (and give other options) in our article on the easiest position in rugby.