Rugby, as a sport, is a relatively new game. Granted, it has been played since the 1800s. But as a worldwide phenomenon, the game has only taken off since it became professional in the early 1990s. Over the past 20 years, rugby has evolved dramatically. Defenses have gotten much better, set pieces more structured, tactics far more complex. But perhaps the most visible change has been in each player on the field and how they function in set positions.
Right off the bat, rugby players’ physiques have changed astonishingly. In 1974, the average male rugby player was about 178 cms tall and 84 kgs on the scales. By 2014 the average had jumped as high as 188 cms and 98 kgs. At the same time, rugby players have gotten considerably leaner and more athletic. Because rugby positions are unique in the tasks required of the player, the selection of players in certain positions is based a lot on a person’s physique. A scrumhalf is a very different human physically than a prop. But even so, everyone in their position has gotten bigger.
But size is not everything, even in a sport like rugby. Skills and skill-sets have also evolved over time. Players in specific positions have had to add extra strings to their bows to keep up with the evolution of the game. Props are no longer just scrummagers; they are also ball carries. Centers don’t just run in the midfield; they attack the breakdown as well. There is far more work to be done for everyone on the rugby field than there used to be.
Ruby positions are unique, which is what allows rugby to be played by anyone. The "fat kid" has a place in the team as much as the quick kid, everyone has a role to play and a job to do. Just like in American football, your wide receiver is on the field to grab the ball and race to make meters in the open spaces, as is your winger in rugby the player who gets the ball out wide to score a try. You have your guards and tackles in football to mix it up with the heavies to enact dominance at the line of scrimmage. In the same way, your props grind it out in the scrum to assert their dominance.
However, what makes rugby special is that your Prop can still find themselves on the wing, taking the ball over the line for a try. Your Fllyhalf can be at the bottom of the ruck securing the ball. Rugby is a fluid game that calls for multi-skilled players at every position.
Roles on the field
There are certain roles on the rugby field that are considered "regarding specific." Props and Hookers are the only players who can scrum in the front row, your Hooker is the only player, nowadays, who will throw into a structured line-out. And while your Flyhalf does not necessarily need to be your goal kicker, the job usually falls to them. These core functions of a rugby player, in their specific position are key. There is no point playing a Hooker who can’t throw, or a Lock that can’t jump or add height to the lineout.
However, beyond those position specific-roles, there are also general roles that players need to be comfortable with, some more so with certain aspects than others. Tackling, ball carrying, rucking, evasive running, are a few examples of roles that every player will be a part of. It is true that a Prop will probably spend more of their time tackling and rucking than ball carrying and evasive running, but that does not mean they're immune from taking a hit-up.
Units on the field
The roles can be divided all the way down to certain individuals, but more often than not, they start with being split into sub-groups of players or units. The first division of units is the separation of backs from forwards.
Forwards have set-piece-specific roles - such as scrummaging, lineout throwing and jumping, as well as breakdown-specific roles such as disrupting and fetching. Backs tend to be more focused on tackling, ball running, kicking and try scoring. The forwards can be broken down into tight forwards and loose forwards. The tight forwards again work hard on their specific roles, Props scrum, Hookers throw, Locks jump etc. But, tight forwards also are more focused on rucking, mauling, tackling in close and occasional short ball carrying. Loose forwards are very focused on tackling, supporting ball carries, and breakdown dominance, as well as having both jumping and lifting roles at the lineout and aiding in pushing the scrum.
Backs also divide between inside backs and outside backs, as well as halfbacks. The halfbacks are the ones that run the show from Scrumhalf and Flyhalf, while the inside backs are your centers who are there to carry and distribute the ball. The main role of the outside backs is to make meters and score tries, but again, even more so in the backs, these roles are very fluid.
Evolution of rugby forwards
Your loose-head prop is often known as the dominant scrummager, they're the player who has the chance of wielding the scrum by pushing through their right shoulder. Usually, the Loosehead is a taller prop, and also a bit more mobile, in comparison to the Tighthead. Props, in general, are heavy players and are not needed to be ultra-mobile or skillful. They are on the field win set-piece possession in the scrum and are tasked with using their bulk in combination with strong technique to do this.
Your Loosehead should be an abrasive, aggressive, yet a controlled and tactical player. They face little battles each time they pack down to scrum, and it is both a mental and physical battle. Of course, by dominating in the scrum, they also offer a mental edge over the opposition pack as well as the whole team. If your Tighthead is the rock, your Loosehead is the roll. Of course, there is also the job of lifting in the lineout. It was once believed that Props were relatively interchangeable. It was always just the two least fit, least mobile, fattest players were made to play Prop. But changes to replacement laws have allowed for greater specialization. If you ask them, the Loosehead has to offer more, they are loose from the scrum meaning that they can get away before at least three other players.
Being loose means that Prop should slot into the defensive line following the 1st phase of a defensive scrum. They are also expected to be a ball carrier as a bigger, more mobile player, but of course, their main task is to dominate and control the scrum. Players like Wyatt Crockett for the All Blacks epitomize the modern-day Prop. He is big, tall, powerful as well as mobile and useful around the park.
The first thing the Hooker needs to do is throw in the lineout. A Hooker that can’t throw might as well not be on the field. On top of that, they are there to hook the ball in the scrum, but to be honest, the way in which the modern day scrum works, the scrumhalves are doing a lot of the work by feeding the ball towards the back of the pack. Hookers also add to the scrummaging effort, especially on the defensive when they have both feet on the ground.
It used to be that a Hooker was just another fat Prop who would sit in the middle and throw the occasional lineout. But as Props have evolved, Hookers have also been asked to do added extras. There are two schools of thought on the role of the modern-day Hooker. The first is that they are another loose forward, responsible for breakdown efficiency. The other is that they're a more agile Prop in the loose, as well as the tight.
As an additional loose forward, Hookers are expected to get around the park and make plenty of tackles, they are also then expected to work hard at the breakdown and slow opposition ball, or even poach the possession away. A lot of these so-called "loose hookers" are also devastating ball carriers and runners. A good example of the ultimate modern day Hooker is that of Bismarck du Plessis. Bismarck is famed for his ball carrying and ability at the rucks. Then there is a player like Dane Coles who runs like a No 8, or even a center, and can pass and run with sublime skill.
It has been said before that the first player you select on a rugby team is the Tighthead, and then the second player is the reserve Tighthead. It is true, in the modern era, that the value of a solid Tighthead cannot be underestimated. If a team can dominate in the scrum, this dominance spreads right across the field, and it is your Tighthead that is the rock on which the scrum is built.
Often shorter, and stockier, the Tighthead Prop is meant to be an immovable force. And while a Loosehead has other responsibilities in terms of ball carrying and loose play, you can get away with just being a specialist scrummager as a Tighthead. Like a Loosehead, the Tighthead in years gone by was a bigger player with a thicker neck, asked to lean into the scrum and not go backward. But since the position has become specialized, Tightheads now possess a range of skills aimed at exploiting their opponent at scrum time. Honestly, we're not even going to try to explain them, you'll need to ask a Tighthead Prop how this works.
If there was a prime example of a rock of a Tighthead, who is making his mark at the highest level, it is Owen Franks. He has played 87 times for the All Blacks, but he has never scored a try and is quite proud of that fact. Like the majority of players on the world's best rugby team, he knows his role and executes it with precision.
Traditionally, Lock has always been an influential position in the pack, they are there to be tall, and of course are key lineout proponents, but physically they need to offer a lot more. Often seen as the enforcer, or the lineout maestro, in the modern era there has been a focus on balancing the two Locks between these roles. Your No 4, who usually pushes behind the Tighthead, is your "strong man", your enforcer, and your bulkier scrummager. Next to them, the No 5 can be seen as much more lithe, athletic, and purely focused on ruling the line-outs, both on attack and in defense.
Modern Lineout laws have made the Locks as critical to winning set piece possession as the Props and Hooker. In the not-too-distant past, lifting was not allowed at Lineout time, and as such, your tall men jumped as high as they could go on their own to try and win the ball. It was a simplistic, almost rustic, way of doing things. But nowadays, the physical requirements remain, but a much smarter rugby brain is needed in your Locking combination.
A lineout No 5 does not need to offer too much more than at the set pieces. Of course, they will scrum, and in the loose, they will work as a tight forward - but they are often expected to be better ball handlers than the front row - but they rule the roost at Lineout time. By contrast, the No 4, is often seen as the grunt, sitting behind the Tighthead to offer more weight and stability in that important position in the scrum. They may jump in the Lineout but are often used as lifters. In the loose, your No 5 is the enforcer, they hit hard in the tackle, in the ruck, and with the ball in hand.
A classic example of complimentary Locks is the partnership between Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha for the Springboks a few years back. Matfield has been credited with being one of the best Lineout men in the sport, while Botha was revered for being hard as nails - two very different players who at the same position, played very different roles.
The on-field roles of Flankers and specifically the blindside and the openside are constantly changing and can vary significantly depending on the specific skill-set of an individual player. It is a position for your "middle of the road" player - regarding physical stature - but the mentality of a Flanker is ultra-important.
In recent years, the body composition of Openside and Blindside Flankers has begun to diverge. It is still a position in the forwards, so size matters, but Openside Flankers often get away with being smaller thanks to superior speed, body height in contact, and a little bit of mongrel, as well as supreme fitness. The Openside Flanker is the tackler, and the breakdown disrupter, they should be the first to hassle the Flyhalf and the second player to almost every defensive breakdown. Speed to the ball and technique at the breakdown are critical for the Openside Flanker. On defense, Openside Flankers are encouraged to focus on “fetching” which is actively trying to turn possession over at the breakdown, a skill that many try, but few master. Flankers generally are some of the fittest players of the field, known for doing insane flanker-specific cardio workouts on the regular.
Your Blindside Flanker is more built and usually bigger. This makes them an important ball carrier, without shirking their defensive tackling duties. The modern Blindside Flanker closely resembles a No. 4, perhaps with slightly more athleticism, and is seen as the hulking, roaming beast on the field. Players like Jerome Kaino are revered by oppositions for the hits they put in, as is a player like Willem Alberts, who has been dubbed the Bone-collector.
The Flankers, in their individual roles, as well as a unit along with the No 8, are vital to shaping a team’s attack as well as their defense. Flankers are required to work harder than any other position and need to contribute in every facet of the game - from scrummaging, jumping and lifting in the lineout, attacking and defending.
The final member of the loose-forward trio, the No 8, is seen as the link between forwards and backs. This is a cliched line, but what it really means is that the No 8 should have the grunt of a forward with the skill of a back. Until the early 2010s, your No 8 was always picked just because they were the biggest, fastest loose forward, but their role has changed recently, to the point where this position on the field is highly specialized.
A No 8 needs to be able to play at the coalface, and put in the hard work just like any other loose forward, hitting rucks and driving mauls. But, when things open up, you need to depend on your No 8 to join the backline and provide a link as if he was a center. Their skills with the ball in hand can't be underemphasized, as they need to be the extra player in attack. When it comes to set pieces, the No 8 is also a vital link, especially during the kick-off. The ball is often sent to a gap which is marshaled by the No 8, and on top of that, in defense, they are often used to cover the wings in case of kicks.
Like the Flankers, a Number 8 will play according to their own individual skill set. A player like Kieran Read is most effective on attack, often slotting in at first receiver and with the ability to offload from either hand. Equally prolific yet earlier in his career, a player like Warren Whiteley is a terror on defense and regularly leads the tackle count in the Super Rugby competition. He's also known for having a work rate as good or better than anyone in the game. Number 8 is a position which provides players with a lot of freedom to play according to their skills and personality.
Evolution of rugby backs
As you can see, rugby's evolution has created unique players in the forward pack whose skills have morphed over time. Yet the Scrumhalf is probably one of the few positions that have remained relatively similar over the years. The Scrumhalf is still able to get away with being one of the smaller players on the field. Their main role is to move the ball from the ruck to open play. Of course, as the first player at a stationary ball, their decision-making needs to be impeccable. In combination with the Flyhalf, the Scrumhalf is the core of the on-field tactical team. The speed and delivery of the Scrumhalf's pass need to be exceptional. But it is to who, or where, they pass that is so much more important.
The Scrumhalf has also become a tactical kicking option. The "box kick" is now used prolifically to help teams gain territory and relieve pressure on a backline. Players like Fourie du Preez, and Aaron Smith, are heavily praised for the role they play in their team as they provide this kicking option. Scrumhalves do come in slightly different molds. Some are far more lively and nuggety, often coming into games late to provide attacking threats. While starting Scrumhalves are more likely to move the ball to the first receiver from the base of the ruck. Sniping at the rucks does more than just give half chances to a nippy Scrumhalf, it compresses the defensive line's structure and opens up space on the outside. An attacking scrumhalf is a huge threat to an entire defensive line if they're able to buy time and create gaps for supporting players.
While the Flyhalf’s role has not changed dramatically over the years, the style and manner of the individual will determine how their team is able to structure their attack. The Flyhalf is responsible for making on-field decisions like what to do with the ball when the game moves into open play. In combination with the Number 8 and Scrumhalf, the Flyhalf will make tactical decisions aimed at exploiting potential weaknesses in the opposition. Depending on the particular tactic, a Flyhalf needs to possess the requisite skills to allow their team to succeed. This might be kicking for territory, shooting at goal, taking the ball to the line or a host of other potential options. The Flyhalf, more than any other player, needs to have the skills to execute tactical decisions in real-time.
Unfortunately, many Flyhalves seem to be content with being type-cast as one-dimensional players. You can be a "passing Flyhalf," happy to shift the ball on to the rest of the backline without much thought or tactical awareness, becoming merely a link in the line of the ball moving through the backline. You can also be classed as a "kicking flyhalf," a player who aims for territory over possession, but also a hard discipline to master. There are also "running flyhalf" that looks to make the linebreaks themselves, rather than finding gaps for supporting players.
The kind of Flyhalf you become seems to depend greatly on the physical gifts you're blessed with. A player like Morne Steyn is an out and out kicking flyhalf, he notoriously shied away from the action, happy to run the game from afar, and with a booming boot. By contrast, Beauden Barrett is a running flyhalf. Not large of stature, by with exceptional pace, he supports brilliantly and attacks the line when in possession. A recent example of a passing flyhalf might be Stephen Larkham. While also possessing a great turn of pace, his primary skill was shifting the ball to players in motion like Stirling Mortlock and Joe Roff.
There are some flyhalfs who can be said to have all the above skills in spades. The most obvious example being Dan Carter, who, for the better part of the last decade has been able to make opponents pay for mistakes with his boot, his pass, and his feet. Carter is a Flyhalf that has it all, he is astute enough to kick when needed, can take the ball to the defensive line, and can create magic with the right pass. In the modern era, a Flyhalf with all these skills - not to mention tackling proficiency - is a rare find.
The centers are a complex partnership on the rugby field. They are independent and interdependent on each other in different facets of the game, and while they have similar roles at times, they also play very different parts at others.
The inside center (No 12) was traditionally a hulking great ball carrier. But being a slab of meat no longer cuts it at the top level of the game. "Crash and bash" techniques are effective in small doses but can't be the basis for an entire game plan. A No 12 is a powerful machine, he is explosive and primarily focused on getting across the gain line, but it doesn't stop there. It used to be that the inside center would either take the ball into contact or shift it to his midfield partner. Modern No 12s are now looking to do both, and at the same time. The ability to take the ball into contact, while looking to offload is one of the deadliest weapons an inside center can offer on attack.
For the No 13, they also look to take the ball to the line, or distribute even wider, but because they have more space to work with, the outside center is usually more of a speedster than a hulking brute. The ability to step, evade and take on defenders in a one-on-one situation will separate a 13 from a 12 quite quickly. The outside center will often be the first supporting player at a backline breakdown, or they can look to make magic on the outside, and utilize wings and fullback.
In defense, the No 13 is a key player in the line. It is usually the No 13 who is aligning the troops and making sure the defense is set before an attack can penetrate. They must be vocal, and they must be aware of their surroundings. The centers are the rock on which a defensive line is built. Their understanding and cohesion are important on attack, but far more intricate on defense.
If any position has seen a major change in mentality and body shape, it is the Wing. No longer the small nippy players on the park, there are some monsters out there who can outpace anyone, but also pack a 100kg punch. The wing's primary role still remains the same, perhaps a little more is needed from them on defense and against attacking kicks, but they are essentially on the field to score Tries.
Not too long ago, Wingers were shaped like Scrumhalves. Small, agile and fast. While smaller wingers still have a place, they are up against players who are big, powerful, and just as fast. Players like Shane Williams and Breyton Paulse used to rule the roost. However, they would likely struggle to defend against the likes of Waisake Naholo and George North today. To score Tries, wingers still need attacking skills including a step, evasive running, and straight line speed. But modern wingers have added strength, size, and power through contact.
Wingers are also required to do a big job on defense, as it is usually a one-on-one situation in the wider channels, this again is where size comes in. The bigger the attacking winger, the bigger defending wing is needed to bring them down. Finding huge, fast wingers has become quite the arms race in rugby.
The fullback’s role has not changed considerably over the years either. They too have perhaps gotten bigger, and with the tactical weaponry used on attack often aimed at them, they have had to get better at positioning and fielding kicks. But the primary roles of the fullback are to be the last player on defense and the extra player on attack. With wings and fullbacks merging their responsibilities, there is much overlap in their role, both in attack and defense. However, an oversimplification is to see the fullback as a slightly “smarter” wing, who has to organize the defense from behind the line, while controlling their Wingers in a "back three" unit.
The defensive duties of a fullback are vital. They're some of the best one-on-one tacklers on the team. And should be equally good at spotting holes in the line and rallying troops to fill them. All this controlling of the line must be balanced with their own positioning because running attacks and kicking attacks are often aimed at catching a fullback out of position. The payoff for this defensive overload is a bit of free reign in attack. The fullback looks to join the line where they feel they can make the most impact, once again, spotting gaps at the back. Some fullbacks, like Ben Smith and Willie le Roux, will pop up as extra distributors in the backline to throw off defenses. While others like Israel Folau prefer to attack from depth and pounce on any weak shoulders or gaps.
With rugby being so diverse, there is no real perfect set of attributes that will make a player the best in their position. Sometimes, an odd bit of skill or ability not expected from a certain position can enhance a team’s overall performance. However, what is clear is that players cannot be one dimensional in their role any longer. The game of rugby is evolving every day, the tactics, the play, the defense and attack; every facet is moving forward. Those players partaking in the game evolve too, and make their positions better than they were yesterday.