Rugby union numbering schemes
Modern rugby union numbering schemes normally now have the starting players numbered from 1 to 15, and the replacements numbered 16 onwards, but players have not always been identified by individual labels, nor have the systems used always been the same.
History of the use of numbers on shirts
The first use of numbered shirts was the match between New Zealand and Queensland at Brisbane, Queensland in 1897 in order to allow the spectators to identify the players. In that match New Zealand wore the numbers 1 to 15 starting at fullback, whilst the hosts wore the numbers 16 to 30.
The practice was adopted for various major internationals but no definitive system was adopted. The matter was brought before the IRB by the English and Welsh Rugby Unions in 1921 but it was decided that the identification of players by marking their shirts was a matter to be determined by the team themselves. Most teams used numbers but in the 1930s, the Welsh used letters. In the early days, a "back-row" was truly a back row, with all three of these player packing down with their shoulders driving the second-row (rather that with the flankers driving the props directly as is required today). Therefore in many numbering systems these three players were numbered to reflect that (rather than with the two flankers having consecutive numbers as it is today).
|“||This, Sir, is a rugby match, not a cattle sale.
James Aikman Smith,
former president of the Scottish Rugby Union
Scotland first adopted a numbering system in 1928 for the match against France, but dropped it again immediately. Thus when Scotland played England that year, King George V who attended the game asked why the Scottish players were not numbered, the former president of the Scottish Football Union (as it was then) James Aikman Smith answered This sir is a rugby match not a cattle sale.
By the 1950s, the RFU had produced a booklet called Know the Game in which it is stated that there are no hard and fast rules governing the names of the positions or the numbers worn but it lists the custom in Britain as being 1 for the fullback, to 15 for the lock (now known as the number 8). Rugby league still uses this reverse numbering system.
A number of different systems are used to publish team lists in newspapers, match programmes and online. Most list the backs 15-9, followed by the forwards 1-8, although traditionalists prefer 15-9, 1-5, 6,8,7, i.e. the forwards in scrum order. Match programmes often list the players in order from 15 to 1.
By 1950 all the home nations used numbers; England, Scotland and Wales used the system described above, whilst France and Ireland did the reverse using what we would now describe as the modern system. By the 1960/1 season however they had all agreed to use the France/Ireland system, with 1 being loosehead prop and 15 being the fullback.
Traditionally, some clubs (notably Leicester Tigers and Bristol) have used alternative schemes consisting of letters, Bath and Richmond have used a scheme without a number 13 and West Hartlepool RFC hung up their No. 5 jersey in memory of their lock John How who died of a heart condition in a 1994 league match. These unusual systems are shown in the table below. Other common variations in the numbering are the interchange of 6 and 7 (particularly in South Africa and Argentina) or of 11 and 14. A peculiar tradition existed with the rugby team of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London which used to use a system of ancient Thai numbers, making identification by opposing teams virtually impossible. Waitete Rugby Club (affiliated to the King Country Rugby Football Union in New Zealand) replace the number 5 with 55, in honor of Colin Meads.
Will Greenwood, who normally plays at inside centre, prefers to wear the number 13 shirt rather than the usual number 12 assigned to this position for superstitious reasons. During the Rugby World Cup Final of 2003 he played inside centre wearing number 13 and Mike Tindall played outside him in the number 12 shirt.
There is nothing in the Laws of Rugby Union that determine if or how players should be individually identified by marking their clothing. However, since 1967, player numbering has been standardized by the IRB for international matches (1-15, with 1 being loosehead prop and 15 being the fullback, and the replacements numbered from 16 onwards). English Premiership sides have also adopted this standard numbering system to better aid the understanding of spectators new to the sport, thus Leicester have had to abandon their traditional letter system, though they have since reinstated them by printing a small letter appropriate to the player's position next to the club badge on the left breast.
Numbering in seven-a-side rugby
In rugby sevens, although the IRB requires that players wear numbers, it does not dictate a specific scheme tied to the player's position. Accordingly, most teams use permanent squad numbering, although numbering generally starts with the forwards.
Table of Historical and Traditional Player Identification Schemes
|Position||1950's British custom||Standard modern numbering||Without the number 13||Letters – Leicester-style||Letters – Bristol-style|
|Replacements||None until 1968||16 onwards||17 onwards||P onwards||P onwards|
-  Rugby Football History; Player Numbering
- Griffiths, John (2012-06-06). "Eight month tours and Aberavon". Ask John. ESPN Scrum. Retrieved 2012-06-06.