The positions clarified

Despite what you have seen on the television, each player has a specific function, one that differs from all the others. To help you, and other spectators, including those who have been around for years, each individual position is numbered and in many cases the players starting the match will have that specific number on their back.

So let’s go through them.

1. The loose-head prop,

2. The hooker,

3. The tight-head prop,

4 and 5. The locks,

6. The blindside flanker,

7. The open side flanker,

8. The number eight,

9. The scrum-half,

10. The fly half,

11. The left wing,

12. The inside centre,

13. The outside centre,

14. The right wing,

15. The fullback.

This is nice, simple and straightforward.

Well, perhaps not that simple. There are also the numbers from 16 to 23 but they often do not go on the pitch initially. Further, the positions above have alternative names.

So just to clarify:

Those in the scrum.

The loose-head prop, the hooker and the tight-head prop are known collectively as the front line, the loose-head prop being the one nearer the put-in if it is his team with the put-in. These are the ones who lock heads, and horns, with their respective numbers from the other side. A few years ago they would run at one-another at speed, or what equated for speed for big, fat blokes.

Behind them were the two locks who stuck their heads in between the bums of the hooker and whichever prop was on their side. Collectively known as the second row, when together with the front row we get the front five or the tight five.

If we then add the blind- and open-side flankers, the blind-side being the one nearer the touch line (scrums in the middle of the pitch cause the flankers problems), who can be called the wing forwards, and the number eight, the chap right at the back, who despite making up two rows are known as the back row, not to be confused with the back line (see later), we get the pack, which is made up of all the forwards.

I’ve heard that in Canada and the USA the number eight is known as the 8-man. It would be a brave person who suggested British rugby should include, or fail to ban, nomenclature from ‘them’.

What  could be simpler?

The two opposing packs bump into one-another, fall over, and then get up again: rugby in a nutshell, or nutcase.

It can get more difficult unfortunately as we now have to bring in fractions as times.

The rest of the players, nine to fifteen, are collectively known as the backs. Some suggest that the numbers nine and ten are not really backs but then they are more not really forwards and they have to be something.

The number nine is the scrum-half, the half back or sometimes the stand-off, and his main job seems to be to get the ball into the scrum before they all fall down. In the ‘old days’ he was also referred to as the little bloke. As the number nine often receives the ball from the scrum, the opposing flankers tend to pay him a lot of attention. Further, their other job is to receive the ball from the line out catcher, so you can see when the number nine is also identified as ‘the bloke with blood coming from his eye’, or ‘the one limping’ and sometimes ‘the chap in the ambulance.’

The number ten, the chap who receives the ball from the number nine (if he hasn’t been flattened) can be the outside half, stand-off, fly half or the first five-eighths. He is also a half-back. This chap is the controller of an attack, one who directs his players, feeding them the ball in situations where they have time to pass or run with it. Number tens are great believers in myths. They tend to pass the ball as quickly as possible in the expectation that they will not be late-tackled.

There is another half-back, the number twelve, who is also the inside centre or second five-eighths and the second, or rather other, half back. If you are chuffed that being good at algebra has meant that you have not been too confused by the plethora of fractions, although there are more to come, you should hope that you are not too good at geometry as their are two centres. And don’t go all cocky with talk of ellipses as they have foci.

The inside centre and the fly half are known collectively at the half backs to differentiate them from ‘real’ backs, the assumption being that half-backs occasionally hold the ball.

The other centre is the number twelve, also known as the outside centre and sometimes just the centre, presumably just to piss off the inside centre a bit.

There are four ‘quarters’ you will be relieved to know, but as this is too simple by half, they are all called three quarters. They are the centres and the two wings, the number eleven (bet you thought we’d forgotten that one) and the fourteen, respectively on the left and right wing.

At the back there is the number fifteen or full back. He has no collection of names, mainly, it is said, because no one knows he’s there.

So there you have it, a simple and straightforward list of who is who on the rugby pitch. Whilst there are a lot of fractions mentions, don’t get worried that you F in the algebra GCSE will mean you can’t have a meaningful conversation about rugby. Just drop a fraction or two into a statement every now and again and everything will be fine. It is essential that you do not get carried away and mentioning the 11/16ths will show you up to be a bit of a burk.

Much is made of the ethos of rugby, its core beliefs which, if they were followed nationwide, would make this the best country in the world. And so it is even with the positions. This teaches us that it is best to ignore fractions.

Rugby, how it all didn’t start

The history of rugby is hidden in muddy pits and drunken haze but there are a few stories that emerge which can be considered established fact. Who has not heard that a lad, one Web-Ellis, at Rugby public school was playing football and became upset at the language and social class of the spectators, not to mention the ban on beer, so picked up the ball and tried to run off with it? When the big lads on both sides jumped on him and beat the living daylights out of him, the modern game of rugby was born.

Even in those dark days, teachers were not allowed to shackle students nor break their necks or limbs. So rugby could be seen as a form of discipline and the occasional fatality could be put down to making a man of the late lad.

Any child who showed signs of original thought could be drafted into the fly half position and a quick suggestion to the referee that late tackles on him would not be penalised, even at half time would be more painful than any caning. In these days of human rights gone mad the bottom of the ruck is the only sane place left for brutality.

The charm of the modern game is that it allows those who want to grunt a lot and push things around to do just that while the rather elegant and, one has to admit, sissy can run about a bit and look cool. Even cooler in those infrequent occasions they have the ball.

Despite the new laws, in essence little has changed in the 150 odd years of the sport, the one exception being when some players decided to go their own way and set up a rival game: Rugby League.

As some are confused by the variations, let us first clear up the differences.

1/ Rugby League has always been played by professionals and Rugby Union has always been played by professionals who told fibs. In order to cover their flagrant breech of the amateur status of the sport the Union players acted like amateurs off the pitch. This facet has remained true despite Union players now receiving their pay packets in daylight.

2/ For Rugby League, it is essential that a coach can count up to 14. In Union, this goes up to 15, although do not read into this any superiority of intelligence on behalf of Union coaches. Fifteen is three hands while 14 requires subtraction.

3/ In Rugby League if a player is tackled he keeps hold of the ball whereas in Rugby Union if a player is tackled he will only keep hold of the ball if the referee is unsighted. Further, in Union many players are tackled when they haven’t got hold of the ball as the referee will be looking at the tackled player to see if he holds onto the ball.

4/ League is mainly played in the North of England whereas Rugby Union players don’t know where the North of England is, and even if they did they would not want to go there.

5/ Scrums (these will be explained later in the blog) are no fun in League as the ball goes in and the ball comes out almost at once. There are no endless resets, nothing collapses, the referee doesn’t have to make up penalties when he’s getting a bit bored and, most important of all, the team that puts the ball in will keep possession. Seems pointless putting it in in the first place if the pack isn’t going to play with it,

6/ Everyone looks the same height and build in League whereas in Union there is a great variation, some looking as if they do not belong to the human race.

It should be pointed out that many books suggest that another difference is that in Rugby League the ball isn’t thrown into the pitch after it goes out of play. This is patently absurd as the logistics of all the balls required would be beyond someone who could only count to 14.

In the initial years Rugby Union was only played by forwards. This meant that rugby pitches could be very small. Indeed many a rugby match was played indoors, often in dormitories and sometimes even in bars. There were a number of advantages to this style of play, one of which was economy. Expensive things like the big metal H at either end of the pitch were not required. The same could be said of the pitch, tactics and the ball. 

All good things must come to an end. Many schools wanted to put class against class and they needed positions on the pitch for everyone. So they invented backs.

This meant a whole new concept had to come to Rugby: the ball had to emerge from the scrum so that these Johnny come latelies had something to do. They invented perfect positions for imperfect kids: the little weedy one, whom no one would miss, least of all his parents, if he was seriously injured could play scrum half. The tall, good looking lads had the wings to pose on. The big fat blokes who liked hugging one another could be the pack, with a special place for the kid who was kept locked up at night for the good of the Matron: the hooker. Those who were quite big who didn’t want to touch their team mates in the scrum could be flankers. The lad who couldn’t do anything and no one wanted to be near could be full back. The little kids who were not much good at anything other than getting in the way could be kept in the centre of the field, hence centres. And the one who couldn’t even get in the way and was good at passing the buck was a gift for #10. Indeed, he was the perfect Prime Minister.

The sport has developed over the years and the main concern nowadays is no longer the weight of the tight five (explained later) but the weight of health and safety regulations. Rugby is a violent sport, especially in the clubhouse. The players put their heads and necks into positions which they were not designed to go and serious injuries often used to result. With litigation moving from being a spectator sport to one which anyone could participate in, things had to change.

The bods in charge and the Rugby Football Union HQ showed great concern with regards to these injuries and they came up with a classically simple solution that satisfied everyone: replacements. So even if two or three players were carted off to hospital, or the mortician, the match could still go on with evenly numbered sides.

That is the modern game of rugby: caring, concerned with health and safety, and with a position for everybody, even if it might be in the back of an ambulance.

A spectator’s guide to spectating

Your first visit to a rugby match will probably come about because your child, perhaps playing in the under 11s, drags you along as he or she wants to watch the first IV in full flow. Wouldn’t we all like to see that. You will be worried that your tales of playing at the Stoop will be exposed as no more than kicking a tin can across the stands when you should have been cleaning them.

Don’t worry. Everyone plays their best rugby from the sidelines. This excludes touch-judges of course.

Your main concern will be not to make a fool of yourself by showing you have no idea of what is going to happen, and when you get there, what is going on. Do not worry. For spectators there are only two laws: do not stand so far into the pitch that there’s a player between you and the touch-line and secondly, never, but never, take your own beer to an away match.

Other than these two, easily understandable laws, you have a free hand.

I say free hand, but that is not quite correct. That would be too easy. There are all sorts of other, subtle nuances that are vital before you can fit in. For instance:

I was walking towards the club house one time along a narrow paved path that had just room for one person to pass, so about half the width of a prop (terms will be explained at the end of each blog). Coming towards me was another chap, also sticking to the path.

Either side of the path it was the normal rugby type of surface: thick, sticky mud. As we got close, and at a signal that neither of us would be able to explain, both of us took a step to the right and walked in the mud. As we passed one another we nodded slightly and then, after a couple of paces, both of us regained the path.

To any rugby fan or player, this goes without comment. Once you have been to a few matches you will know when you are accepted when you do the same sort of thing without thinking. Without thinking is the main way anyone does anything at a rugby match. This includes all spectators, players and officials.

Choosing your spot

Unlike other forms of football you do not have the problem of only being able to stand with supporters of your own side. Opposing fans do not oppose in rugby. They tend to mix. This can be confusing if you are unsure of which side your are supporting. This is something you should establish at an early stage. However, it is often not that simple.

My club is called The Blues. You might think this would give a clue as to what colour jerseys – note: jerseys, not tops or pullies – they will be wearing but you would be wrong. Despite all the team photographs showing the team dressed in various designs of kit, in all of which the dominant colour was, well you’ve guessed it.

However, it doesn’t matter all that much as there are different expectations of spectators in rugby than in any other sport.

Clapping is big. You will be surprised to find that most spectators, regardless of team affiliation, will applaud when a player does something rather special or, lower down the leagues, does something. It is best to follow suit. The reasons for this are often obscure and might amount to nothing more than the chap on the end trying to warm his hands and everyone just thought they had missed something.

You will see a player on the ground, possibly unconscious, suffering after a hard tackle. He will be brought round and then walked to the side lines (on the assumption that the coach still has replacements available with the necessary skills). The crowd, whichever side they are supporting, will applaud.

This is not to acknowledge how clever the opposing player was to nearly kill him. It is just to rub it in to the guy how wimpish he is not to continue playing after being knocked out or having his leg broken.

So there we have it: drink alcohol you bought at the bar, don’t get involved in the scrums and just do the same as everyone else. You’ll fit in with no problems.

More details to follow.