Tue 7 Apr 2020 | 06:27

Playing with numbers

Playing with numbers
Tue 7 Apr 2020 | 06:27
Playing with numbers

Teams number their players now but it was not always so. In fact there was a time when numbering players was frowned upon as it smacked of tawdry professionalism.


Now nobody bothers about professionalism – nobody, that is, except those who have to pay the players and the coaches and the fitness trainers and the sports psychologists and the first aid people and the PR people and the media liaison officers and so on and on, as rugby becomes the gigantic employment opportunity it never was.

Numbers have taken the place of names in referee speak. “Off-side, 6.” “Leave it, 7” “Get onside, 8.” “You can’t play the 9.” “Never onside, 13.”

Numbers have replaced the jargon of position. “Who is the best 9 in the country?” “I’m not sure whether to play him at 6 or at 7.”

When England first wore numbers at Twickenham, on 18 March 1922, King George V, a keen rugby supporter, turned to the secretary of the Scottish Rugby Union, the conservative J Aikman Smith, and said, “I see England have numbers. What a good idea. When are Scotland going to get numbers?”

In indignation Aikman Smith replied: “Sire, my players are men, not cattle.” And the story has it that he refused to speak to His Majesty for the rest of the afternoon.

So the story goes.


Numbers, it is believed, were first used in 1897 in Brisbane when the New Zealanders played Queensland. “As an experiment to assist spectators, a number will be placed on each player’s back.”

When they were brought to Sydney in 1904, players objected because it was too convenient a way for referees to identify miscreants.

On 21 January 1922 numbers were used in a Five Nations match for the first time – when England played Wales at Cardiff Arms Park. It rained. Wales won 28-6.

The Springboks wore numbers on the 1906-07 tour, though not against Scotland. Their opponents sometimes wore numbers, e.g. Yorkshire, Middlesex, Newport and East Midlands. The Springboks wore tour numbers.


It would seem that the 1905-06 All Blacks did not wear numbers.

The International Rugby Board first discussed the numbering of players in 1921 when Wales and England let it be known that they intended to number their players. “The Board expressed the view that this was a matter for the several unions to decide on, having regard to the wishes of their players.”

Howard Marshall, Haileybury, Oxford, Harlequins and Barbarians, for years the rugby correspondent of the Daily Telegraph wrote in 1936 in an article entitled What Rugger Means to Me: ” Here I must make what is probably my last protest against the numbering of players. I remember how I resented this cattle-branding when I was playing myself, and my unholy delight when the numbered jerseys did not correspond with the programmes. Rugby football is not a game for such fripperies as numbering and programmes; it is not a game to be watched by any but those who have played it and understand it.”

In 1933 soccer players were numbered at the FA Cup Final for the first time. Everton, who won, played Manchester City. Everton were numbered 1-11, Manchester City 12-22. Scotland started using numbers for football teams after World War II, but the great Scottish soccer club Celtic had to be forced to wear numbers on their backs, after they had tried to get away with them only on their shorts and then on their sleeves.

Sometimes teams have worn letters – to confuse pirate programme sellers. The All Blacks did that in New Zealand in 1921. Confusing pirate programme sellers was not the only reason. There was also the belief that a single letter was less confusing than two numbers. The famous English clubs, Bristol and Leicester, used letters, from A to O till the advent of professionalism and TV exposure. Bristol had A at fullback, Leicester O at fullback. When they played, it looked as if a whole lot of scrabble tiles had been flung onto the field. In 1999 they changed from letters to numbers.

Some prefer not to use numbers in the pious belief that the game is a team game and no individual is so important that attention should be drawn to him. The Diocesan College, Bishops, where the South African game started in 1961, like this as it suggests that rugby is valued as a part of education, not a means of marketing an individual.

There have been times when teams have not had used a number 13 but a 16 instead, out of superstition. Then you get players like Danie Gerber who insisted on using the number 13! Bath RFC does not have a No.13, using 16 instead. West Hartlepool no longer have a No. 5 after a lock John Haw died of a heart attack during a match in 1994.

At one stage the fullback was Number 1. The front row wore Nos 8,9,10, the locks were 11 & 12, the loose forwards 13,14,15. The last were the back row in the old 3-2-3 scrum formation. Although that formation is now not normal but replaced by the 3-4-1 formation, the loose-forwards are still 6,7,8 as if they formed a back row but with the player at the back as the No.8. South Africa invented this scrum formation and developed that player’s modus operandi and call him the eighthman.

There is also distinction made between flanks – 6 or seven denoting openside or blindside, the difference noticeable only at scrums..

Just after World War II in the Five Nations, numbering was from 1 to 15, starting with the fullback at 1. From the beginning of the Sixties the numbering changed to what it is today. From 1966 on it became uniform in Test matches that the numbering be from 15-to-1 to 1-to-15 where 15 was the fullback and 1 the loosehead.

There have been times when touring teams had touring numbers and players could have had a 29 on the back. There was also a time when differing numbering conventions were used, making the fullback Number 1, for example.

The IRB, like most law-making bodies, are reactive. Something happens and then you make a law to cover it/govern it/get rid of it. They decide to order the numbering for matches under their jurisdiction.

The positions should be as follows, the numbers being for teams which wear numbers. Not all teams wear numbers. In fact numbers were a bone of contention.:

15 fullback
14 wing (right)
13 (outside) centre
12 (inside) centre, second five-eighth in New Zealand
11 wing (left)
10 flyhalf, first five-eighth in New Zealand
9 scrumhalf, halfback
8 eighthman, number 8, No.8
7 flank
6 flank
5 lock
4 lock
3 prop (tighthead)
2 hooker
1 prop (loosehead)

The names and numbers have been given for the positioning of a team at a scrum, for in olden days the scrum was the most important facet of play. Games in fact were almost one long scrum. Now they are important but far less so. David Campese wore a Number 11 jersey though he played on the right wing.

In 1998 the All Blacks wore a 2 on their sleeves – a tribute to Sean Fitzpatrick who had just recently retired.

The use of replacements, first for injury and then as tactical substitutions, has led to a fairly orderly bench. There are as many as seven players on the bench, often – but not always – split 4-3 between forwards and backs.

The bench is numbered from 16 to 23 where, often but not always, 16 is a hooker, 17 and 18 props.

Many consider a team as now consisting of 23 players with a maximum of 15 on the field at any one time.

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