When I first played rugby as a 6yr old boy, it was on dry winter afternoons, barefoot on the country club field in Winterton.
My coach, usually a friend’s dad, picked our positions by 2 simplified factors:
Big/ Slow boys played in the forwards.
Small/ Fast boys played in the backs.
Not much changed over the years and by the time I got to high school, we were confirmed in our positions by which players were our heroes.
Brian O’Driscoll & Ma’a Nonu were my schoolboy heroes. At Academy I had a poster of Frans Steyn on my wardrobe door. So that was that, I was a Center.
When I started coaching I got handed the job of deciding who played where.
It sent me into an ongoing study of who should play where, why, and how.
Every time I think I have cracked the code, I discover more nuance to positions & their best fits, but it all started with the Big, slow boys & the Small, fast boys.
Different game plans require different player roles.
Rugby has changed a lot in the last decade.
We went from huge packs, ball possession supremacy, and training ground backline moves, to huge backs, field position supremacy, and multiple-phase play chess battles.
There are many different ways to think about what each position requires and that comes down to the game plan of the coach.
We like to design our team around the combination of each “positional couplet” and how they fit into our “Tight, Flat, Wide” game plan.
For example, where the role of the centers are concerned, the BIG BUS used to play in the 12 channel and bash it up all day. Now with the use of forwards running flat in the 12 channel, our 12 no longer carries the burden of getting the team over the gain line.
This allows the 12 to take on more of a playmaking role of controlling the “wide game.” The 13 becomes the one responsible for preserving the space & winning the gainline outwide. Guitteau & Mortlock really pioneered this change.
Because of the strongside passing/running mechanics most left wings (11) get drifted into and so have to be powerful enough to bash back against the creep.
11’s get more ball, but 14’s get more space.
With fullbacks, historically they were expected to be lethal out wide, given space to attack with ball in hand. But we are seeing how they are just as dangerous slotting in at 1st receiver for a quick recycle to the short side, or to have a go at the fringes of the ruck if the big boys are caught on the back foot.
1 & 3
The Strong boys.
Props are expected to win scrums & mauls. And be impactful in the “Tight” game.
Strong carries. Strong tackles. Lots of ruck cleans. These guys can be the difference on attack when they can combine their brute strength with a good playmaker & attacking pattern.
Think Beast, Sinkler, Healy, Vunipola, Koch…
2 & 7
The Fearless boys.
They are often physically smaller than the rest of your pack, and that leads to them having a chip on their shoulder when it comes to proving their physicality on the field. These guys are gonna impact every aspect of the game.
They are gonna be leaders on defensive aggression, leaders on steals and slowing ball, they are gonna carry for every playmaker, they are gonna be there for the linebreak support line. They are the engine of the team. Their sheer intensity of will & fearlessness is inspiring to their teammates.
Think McCaw, Dane Coles, Marx, Curry, O’Mahony, Underhill, Guirado, Hooper, Pocock, Savea, Warburton, Louw, Kholisi, Kwagga Smit, Schalk Burger, Jaques Burger.
4 & 8
The Hard boys.
These are your big boys who are Hard & Aggressive.
These guys are gonna put in the big tackles, the big carries, the big clean outs.
They look for opportunities to dominate situations. They will have a lower work rate than 5 & 6 as they recover from impacts and work their way into the next big impact.
Think Etsebeth, Falitau, Retallick, Vunipola, Vermeulen, Kruis, Lawes, Moriarty, Picamoles, Stander, Skelton, Bakkies Botha, Jerry Collins, Chabal.
5 & 6
The Workhorse boys.
These are your big boys who are Hard Working & Rugby Smart.
They are going to lead your set pieces and work hard at doing the basics well and ensure the boring work gets done. Make the tackles, make the rucks, make the carries, make the support lines, keep getting up, keep showing up.
Think Whitelock, Itoje, AW Jones, Du Toit, Fardy, Robshaw, Haskell, Kieran Reade, Victor Matfield.
Communication and rugby intelligence are essential.
The 9 “drives” his pack around the field.
A great 9 usually goes unnoticed through a match. Yet he probably touches the ball close to 100 times each match. Thats 100 decisions in a multi layered attacking game plan. Defensive systems are run by the 9 as he is not expected to step into the defensive line. This allows him to sweep or insert unexpectedly.
10 & 12
These are players who were born to pass a rugby ball.
You can picture those guys right now: the handful of players you have coached/ played with who when they pass the ball all the other guys go “wowww.”
The 10 game is all about controlling the “flat game.”
The 12 game is all about controlling the “wide game.”
Think Fynn Russell, Owen Farrell, Quade Cooper, Frans Steyn, Nonu, SB Williams, Mounga, Crotty, Willie LeRoux.
Aren’t Nonu, SBW, & Steyn Gainliners? They sure are massive humans who can boss a gainline, but when you look at how they play they are always looking for the miracle pass, chip kick, offload to put their teammates away. They playmake first, gainline second. Their size allows them to play flat on the gainline and really sit a defense for the guys outside them.
13 & 11
These are the players who are great at sitting defenses & making meters, even through the heaviest traffic, whether it be by running insane angles & gaps, or by sheer size & power.
Think Savea, North, Tuilangi, Huw Jones, Janse van Rensburg, Serfontein, Kriel, Radradra, Vakatawa, Lomu, O’Driscoll, Conrad Smith.
But Serfontein is small and he plays 12 for the majority of his teams? He is small, but he is aggressive & always looks for the contact to protect the space outwide. He often takes 2 defenders over the gainline and does a great job of breaking a defense. Definitely a 13 in our style of play.
14 & 15
These are the players who make things happen through magic rather than might.
The guys who can step, trick, & pace themselves out of impossible situations.
They are often times smaller and so grew up having to use anything other than their size to beat & compete.
Think McKenzie, Kolbe, Hogg, Beauden Barrett, Ben Smith, Folau, O’Connor, Beale, Halfpenny…
Yes in my team Beauden Barrett would be playing 14 or 15. He is far better at Creating magic for himself than he is at playmaking others into space.
Same with Folau: he’s massive, wouldn’t he fit your 13 & 11 role? Yes he would. But again, he is far better at Creating magic for himself than he is at running punchlines to break or sit defenses.