In the two centuries since William Webb Ellis “displayed a fine disregard for the rules of football”, the game that came to be known as rugby and the positions of those who play it have evolved almost beyond recognition.
Back when Webb Ellis attended Rugby School in the early 19th century, ‘bigside’ matches such as those immortalised in Thomas Hughes’ Tom Brown’s School Days could feature 60 or more players on each team and take days to complete.
The objective of these matches was simple: to score more goals than the opposition.
Goals were scored by kicking the ball through your opponents’ posts, and above the crossbar, either from a drop-kick or a place-kick. The latter being earned when the ball was touched down over the opposition goal line, to earn a ‘try at goal’.
Participants were split into one of four positions, players-up (or forwards), who would take part in the many scrums, half-backs, who waited to pounce on the ball as it came loose, and three-quarters and full-backs, who defended their team’s goal line.
From the mid-1800s, as the game was transported from the Close, Rugby’s large playing field, to other schools and universities, and clubs were formed for those keen to play on into adulthood, more organised matches were played by teams of between 12- and 20-a-side.
The very first international matches between England, Scotland and Ireland were contested by teams of 20 players. These line-ups consisted of 15 forwards, two half-backs, one three-quarter and two full-backs.
Back play evolves
Ahead of the 1876-77 season it was decided that all test matches would be 15-a-side. This move had a knock-on effect on the make-up of the line-ups as the first tweaks to formations and positions were made.
Most teams now lined up with a nine-six split of forwards and backs, while the reduction of the number of players in the opposition’s pack ensured many captains felt safe playing with only one full-back.
These subtle changes meant the majority of rugby teams were soon lining up with two half-backs, three three-quarters and a full-back behind their forwards.
As tries began to take on more importance in rugby’s scoring system, pacey backs began to see more of the ball and have greater responsibility in attack.
This would lead Cardiff, inadvertently at first, to make the next positional innovation, one that was later taken by Wales, who had made their test debut against England in 1881, onto the international stage.
Legend has it that in 1884, Cardiff needed to find a way to get Frank Hancock into their team and not wanting to drop the incumbent centre three-quarter, opted to remove a forward from the pack and play with four instead (two centres and two wingers).
The switch enabled Cardiff to develop an attacking game built on short passing that was soon copied throughout Wales and much of the rugby-playing world.
Without Cardiff’s Hancock conundrum we would have been denied some majestic centre partnerships in recent years, Gordon D’Arcy and Brian O’Driscoll, and Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith among them.
Some teams who played with eight forwards at this time trialled three half-backs, while New Zealand – who played with seven forwards at the turn of the century – used a forward in the backline as a five-eighth (in between a half-back and a three-quarter).
Forwards begin to specialise
Up until this point, the forwards had been left largely untouched by these advancements, operating on a ‘first up, first in’ mentality.
However, at the beginning of the 20th century specialisation in positions in the pack began to come into the game, primarily inspired by the success of the early All Blacks teams.
Some of New Zealand’s forward innovations proved controversial – the two-man front-row and their use of a ‘rover’ wing-forward, for example – but this was the start of specialist forwards as we know them today.
As forwards began to hone the craft of their position, those roles became more defined. Props needed to be strong and sturdy, while height was desirable for a second row, who was required to add heft to a scrum and challenge for possession at the lineout.
Although the All Blacks had proved successful in the early 20th century with a 2-3-2 scrum formation, most teams used 3-2-3 until the development of the number eight – or “eighthman”.
The 3-4-1 scrum formation had first been used in South Africa at the turn of the century, but it was Stellenbosch University coach August ‘Oubaas’ Markötter who developed and popularised the idea in the 1920s.
In this formation, the “eighthman” controlled possession at the base of the scrum and linked with the scrum-half to launch attacks.
The position has evolved over the ensuing century but the ability to turn a scrum into an attacking platform is still a vital aspect of the role today, as evidenced by the regularity with which the likes of Ardie Savea, Poppy Cleall and Sam Simmonds get over the goal line.
Since the advent of professionalism in 1995, and as the game has speeded up, the demands on players in certain positions has also changed.
Openside flankers, for example, have become breakdown specialists as that area of the game has increased while front-row players such as Tadhg Furlong, Kyle Sinckler and Codie Taylor are famed as much for their skill with ball in hand as without it.
But as much as rugby and those who play it have changed over the past 200 years, it remains a game with a simple objective: score more points than the opposition.