Rugby union numbering schemes

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Ireland and Georgia contesting a line-out in the 2007 Rugby World Cup – several numbers on the Irish forwards can be clearly seen.

Modern rugby union numbering schemes normally now have the starting players numbered from 1 to 15, and the replacements numbered 16 onwards. But rugby union 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[edit]

The first use of numbered shirts was the match between New Zealand and Queensland at Brisbane, Queensland in 1897[1] to allow the spectators to identify the players. In that match New Zealand wore the numbers 1 to 15 starting at fullback, while 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 than 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).

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.

Modern numbering[edit]

Leicester (green, white and red); the traditional letters denoting their positions can be seen on the front of their shirts above the club badge.

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 standardised 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.[2][3]

In South Africa, the blindside flanker wears 7 and openside flanker wears 6.

Substitutes are usually numbered as follows:

  • 16: hooker
  • 17–18: props
  • 19: second row
  • 20: loose forward
  • 21: scrumhalf (or second loose forward)
  • 22–23: backs

See Rugby union positions.

Numbering in seven-a-side rugby[edit]

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.[4]

Exceptional systems[edit]

A painting of the England versus Wales rugby match in 1931. Note letters, which are not used any more.

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. Other common variations in the numbering are the interchange of 6 and 7 (particularly in South Africa and Argentina) or of 11 and 14.

Other exceptions include:

Historical and Traditional Player Identification Schemes[edit]

Position 1950s
Without the
number 13
Letters –
Letters –
Full back 1 15 16 O A
Right wing 2 14 15 N B
Outside centre 3 13 14 M C
Inside centre 4 12 12 L D
Left wing 5 11 11 K E
Fly-half 6 10 10 J F
Scrum-half 7 9 9 I G
Loosehead prop 8 1 1 A H
Hooker 9 2 2 B I
Tighthead prop 10 3 3 C J
Lock 11 4 4 D K
Lock 12 5 5 E L
Blindside flanker 13 6 6 F M
Openside flanker 14 7 7 H N
Number eight 15 8 8 G O
Replacements None until 1968 16 onwards 17 onwards P onwards P onwards


See also[edit]