The Transition to Position-less Rugby

The rugby community loves to laugh at Eddie Jones’ comments about ‘hybrid players’ after he famously suggested that Jack Nowell could play flanker or that Ben Curry could play scrum half. However, behind the satirical and sarcastic façade there is far more truth to Eddie’s theories than first appears. The way that modern rugby is progressing I can see a not-so-distant future where the number on a player’s back becomes irrelevant as every player has a similar skillset and everyone can do every rugby skill to an elite level.

The last few years in rugby have seen an astronomical increase in player’s mobility and fitness to the point where many influential figures have said that players today are too well conditioned and too fit. An article by the Irish Times in 2019 mirrors these exact sentiments, “Has rugby to regress to ensure its future? It’s a counterintuitive concept, against all of sport’s higher-faster-stronger aspirations. But progress has taken the game to a point where it is getting too big, too strong and too dangerous. The weekend’s Six Nations action once again exhibited what much of elite rugby has become, play after play of superbly conditioned athletes crashing into each other with at times near-heroic levels of commitment.” Rugby is constantly looking to become faster and stronger and recently the increase in strength and speed has been breath-taking, vs Wales in the Six Nations Jonny May peaked at a top speed of 10.3m per second which means if he kept up that pace for 100 metres, he would have had a time of 9 seconds, Usain Bolt’s World Record. And in the same game he got absolutely smoked in a foot race by Louis Rees-Zammit. But it isn’t just wingers that are faster, these days it is not unusual for forwards to be significantly faster than backs, as at my club, Sale Sharks, where our hooker Akker Van Der Merwe and our flanker Ben Curry are arguably our fastest players but significantly are also two of the strongest. Vice versa, we are seeing more and more 110kg + backs that should probably be playing in the back row such as Manu Tuilagi, Josua Tuisova and Taqele Naiyaravoro. This has created a fluidity between the forwards and backs and has blurred the lines of what we call a back and a forward. For example, in the Top 14 in France both Mathieu Bastareaud and Levani Botia fluctuate between being centres and flankers/number 8. In addition, these days, every player on the pitch is a competent jackaler and you will see jackaling penalties won by props, wingers and even scrum halfs. For example, if you look at the current top 20 for turnovers won in the Premiership, you will see loosehead prop Bevan Rodd with 7, scrum half Francois Hougaard with 6 and winger Zach Kibirige with 6, showing that the breakdown isn’t limited to back rows and that every player is elite in certain skills.

Former Wales player Ryan Jones once said that Justin Tipuric has the skillset to play outside centre, which to you may sound like a throw away comment but to me opens up a world of possibilities. It may seem counter intuitive but I have no doubt that countless back row players could be outstanding centres if given the chance, Toby Faletau, Ben Earl, Tom Curry, Sam Simmonds, Ardie Savea and Justin Tipuric all have the speed, agility and soft hands required for the 12 and 13 shirts and would add significant physicality to the position. Furthermore, this would mean that teams could play an extra back row in their place creating more threat at the breakdown.

If you look at how modern rugby teams attack, then you can already see the progression to a position-less game. International teams will order their forwards across their attacking line in a specific way to get their faster and more agile forwards in the wider channels. For example, many teams play a 1-3-3-1 formation in which they have their two fastest forwards on each wing and also a pod of three forwards on the open side that can distribute the ball. You may have noticed this as back rows often pop up on the wing to finish tries, think of Faletau’s try in the second Lions test in 2017 or Michael Hooper scoring a double on the wing vs England in 2016.

Recently, Wales have attacked in a 1-3-2-2 formation with Faletau and Tipuric in the middle two pod because they have superb vision and outstanding offloading skills. Therefore, you can already see the use of forwards in the backline in 2021 and how both Faletau and Tipuric could comfortably play 13. Many people argue that Sam Simmonds can’t play for England because he doesn’t suit Eddie Jones game plan which has the number 8 playing centrally rather than in the wide channels. This theory is regressive because the wide channels are exactly where you want Sam Simmonds, he is often the fastest player on the pitch, has outstanding offloading skills and can outmuscle the majority of backs if he is matched up against them.

Credit: Squidge Rugby on YouTube

I’m also an avid NBA (basketball) fan and I can’t help but think rugby is going down the same road as the NBA, just 10 years later. 10 years ago, in the NBA, players were assigned roles that they had to stick to, they were either a shooter or a rebounder or a passer. Now in the NBA everyone can do everything, everyone is fast, everyone is strong, everyone can shoot, everyone can pass and everyone can rebound. The NBA is a position-less game and teams are scoring on average around 20 points per game more than 10 years ago and they have a better product. Maybe rugby is destined to do the same.

My prediction for rugby isn’t that flankers will start wearing the 13 shirt, but that the number on a players back will become more and more irrelevant as players become faster and stronger and better conditioned. This will create a further reduction in the skills gap between backs and forwards. Soon every player on the pitch will be able to execute every skill to a high level and so we won’t have players on the pitch that specialise in a certain skill. Furthermore, we will see less rigid arrangements in attacking and defensive lines as coaches will become more comfortable with forwards being in the wide channels. Rugby has always been a game for all shapes and sizes but at the moment I think that game plans are too restrictive to player’s skills. Sam Simmonds shouldn’t be restricted to just being a number 8 because he isn’t just a number 8, he’s a rugby player, so if he wants to stand out wide and step 4 guys then he should be allowed because that is his skillset. And that goes for every player, no one should be defined by their position. If i made the statement “Sam Simmonds would be England’s best 13” your immediate instinct tells me i’m wrong but if you really think about it, am i wrong?

What do you think? Comment on this post or message me on Twitter with your thoughts.

4 thoughts on “The Transition to Position-less Rugby

  1. Hi Ben, Women’s rugby has always been open to this position less approach with wingers jumping in line outs to get the best height, the hooker in scrums not throwing in, players that could be centres playing at prop. The women’s game is often different to watch as a result, but perhaps the men’s teams should learn something from Sarah Bern and co

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  2. Very intelligent article Ben. As long as lack of differentiation doesn’t equal vanilla rugby which is what we have seen on many occasions. Same drills, same weights programme. Pods, patterns, zones, All similar size and physicality (barring the exceptions of course) Over coached, overtrained and over played. France seem to have found a way to have specialists. Plus if everyone plays everywhere, will the forwards still be able to take the piss out of the backs ?(girls as they call us)
    Written by
    Dave Bexon

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  3. Very interesting read. In fact didn’t Sinckler start out as a 10 ?! Certainly agree up to a point that back row players can become interchangeable with centres and locks but don’t you think the specific skillsets in other positions are becoming even more specialised?..Imagine how much hookers train their throws or 9s their box kicking.. or wingers with those astonishing one handed touchdowns in the corner! Like others, I think it would be a shame if it is all becoming homogenised a bit. One of the great things about rugby is there’s a different job for all shapes and sizes!

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