Rugby is a team sport that requires all 15 players to participate in both offense and defense. Thus, all rugby players must learn the basic skills of catching and passing the ball, running with the ball, tackling, and rucking.
However, some areas of the match like restarting play following a stoppage or counter-attacking from a deep kick require specialized training and skills. Generally speaking, players will learn and practice these specialized skills as either a forward unit or a back unit.
Players in the forwards unit — a.k.a. “forwards” — are responsible for winning and maintaining possession of the ball. Using strength and endurance, Forwards perform most of the tackles and rucks in a match.
Specialized structures called line-outs and scrums — that restart play after a stoppage — are the exclusive domain of the forwards and require specialized training.
On average, forwards will be larger and stronger compared to the backs.
Players in the backs unit — a.k.a. “backs” — are responsible for advancing the ball and scoring tries. Using speed and endurance, backs score most of the points in a match.
On average, backs will be smaller and faster compared to the forwards unit.
Positions in rugby
The starting forwards wear jersey numbers 1 through 8 while the starting backs wear jersey numbers 9 through 15 (see diagram, above). Expanding on World Rugby’s introduction, below is the name and description of each position. The jersey number(s) at each position is shown in parentheses.
Prop (1 and 3) — While props often serve as battering rams when carrying the ball, they perform a critical role when restarting play at scrums and line-outs. Props prevent the scrum from twisting and moving backwards, and support the weight of the hooker in scrums. In line-outs, they lift other players who contest for possession of the ball. Thus, props must have strong necks, shoulders, and legs.
Hooker (2) — A hooker is responsible for winning possession in both line-outs and scrums. In scrums they hook the ball from the center of the scrum back to the other forwards. In line-outs they throw the ball to the jumpers. In each case timing and accuracy are critical. The hooker and the props make up the front row of a scrum.
Lock/2nd row (4 and 5) — In scrums, locks are behind the front row and thus provide most of the pushing power. In line-outs they usually catch the balls thrown in by the hooker. Thus, they are ofter tall and powerful with a great vertical jump and good ball-handling skills. They are also dangerous on attack as their size makes them a challenge to defend.
Flanker (6 and 7) — Flankers have the fewest defined roles at scrums and line-outs. As such, they often have a great all-around mix of speed, endurance, ball-handling, tackling, and rucking. Unlike the front row and second row players, flankers can detach from the scrum with ease. Thus, they play an important role in scrum defense when the other team wins possession.
Number 8 (8) — Number 8s share many characteristics with flankers and will be mobile, dynamic, and powerful. Additionally, the number 8 is the only forward allowed to pick the ball up from the bas of the scrum. This provides a unique attacking opportunity. The number 8 and flankers together make up the back row.
Scrum half/half back (9) — The scrum half is the link between the forwards and backs. They are key decision makers and determine when the backs get the ball from scrums, line-outs, and rucks. They also put the ball into the scrum and must coordinate their timing with the hooker. Scrum halves need to have excellent endurance, speed, ball-handling skills, and vision in equal measure.
Fly half/outside half (10) — The fly half is the center of most attacks and decides when to run the ball forward or kick for territory. Thus their ball-handing, kicking, and decision making skills are excellent. A fly half will also be able to read the defense and carry the ball forward when the opportunity arises. On defense, they are the target of attacking flankers and the number 8 so the fly half must also be a great tacker.
Center (12 and 13) — The centers receive the ball from the fly half. They and are responsible for carrying the ball forward at high speed in the hopes of breaking through the defensive backs/centers. They are strong and fast on offense and deliver punishing tackles and rucks on defense. The best centers can pass the ball before, during, and after contact to exploit and confuse the defense.
Wing (11 and 14) — The wing is the finisher in most attacks and are spread to the edges of the field. They are the fastest players on the team with great acceleration and side-stepping ability. On defense, they must have great awareness of where the team is on the pitch. Wings must not allow the ball carrier to get past them on the outside while remaining in position to catch any kicks by the opposition.
Full back (15) — The full back is the last line of defense. They line up behind all the other backs and adjust their position as needed to tackle ball carriers who break the defensive line. The full back is thus an excellent tackler. Like wings they must also catch any kicks by the opposition. On offense, the full back joins the attack to help create mismatches with the defense. Thus, they will also be fast with good ball skills (especially when catching high kicks). Together the full back and wingers work together as the back line.