Originally the number of players in a game of Rugby football was not limited, and there were no formal playing positions. Games at rugby school were simply played by however many boys wanted to play in a particular game. A kind of huge rolling maul developed, moving around the field since there was a very limited amount of space on the field in which to run.
As the game began to be played between different schools and clubs a fixed number of players was needed.
The first internationals were played 20 a side (Scotland vs. England being the first in 1871). The number of players was reduced to 15 in 1876 after Oxford persuaded Cambridge to play the varsity match with just 15 players in 1874/75. The move was a great success since it opened up the space in which to run with the ball. Most club games used 15 players during 1876 and the first international with fifteen players was England vs. Ireland in 1877.
"Numbers are not necessary and they savour of professionalism and the circus"
The practice of showing the player's number on the shirt/jersey started in 1897 when New Zealand played Queensland in Brisbane (which was the first New Zealand tour match). The idea was to enable spectators to identify players by placing numbers on their backs. Match cards (programmes) were sold listing the players' names and their corresponding numbers, and these proved popular with the public. The numbers used on that tour were 1 to 15 (from full-back to the forwards) for New Zealand and 16 to 30 for the host teams.
The Australians quickly adopted the practice for their Tests against New Zealand ( the first Trans-Tasman Test, 15th August, 1903) and the British/Irish (1904) they numbered teams in reverse with the full-back wearing 15, as today. South Africa wore numbers for the first time in 1906 on their tour to the UK.
The All Blacks wore numbers when they made their first official tour to Britain, and for the famous Wales Test at Cardiff on December 16, 1905 both teams were numbered: 1 for full-back (Wales), but 15 for full-back (New Zealand).
1905 All Blacks vs Midland Counties
In 1921 England and Wales brought the matter before the IRB but the conclusion was that this was a matter to be decided by the individual unions.
In 1922 England played Wales in Cardiff and both teams used player numbering for the first time in a home nations championship game (Six nations).
Some other countries did not adopt it till much later e.g. Scotland who adopted it first in 1928 in a game against France. Interestingly enough the committee consulted a senior cap (John Bannerman) afterwards to elicit the the views of the players and after the feedback was against it, they removed the numbers again until re-introducing them in 1933. When Scotland played England in the Calcutta cup at Twickenham in 1928 King George V asked a former president of the SFU James Aikman Smith (known as Napoleon) why Scotland were not wearing numbers and was told "This sir is a rugby match not a cattle sale". Numbers did not return to Scotland's jerseys until two years after Smith's death.
Official programmes were usually very flimsy productions produced by the Union staging a Test, but there were often "pirate" versions issued by opportunists out to make a fast buck. The Unions deliberately chopped and changed numbering methods to outwit the pirates, and the public were warned, in the press and at grounds, that only the official programmes had the "correct numbers for players."
Edinburgh Academicals and Herriot's College arranged to number their players for the game on Saturday 21st February 1931. The first time two Scottish teams were numbered.
By 1950 all the home nations used numbers but England, Scotland and Wales numbered the players starting from the full back (1) and France and Ireland did the reverse with the fullback being 15. By 1960/1 they had all agreed to use the France/Ireland numbering.
The RFU publication "Rugby Union Football - Know the game" 1950 states that there are no hard and fast rules governing the names of the positions or the numbers worn but lists the custom in Britain at the time. The following table lists some of the common formats although it should be noted that many changes occurred over the years and sometimes just for specific tours.
Position IRB Numbering France/Ireland
England, Scotland, Wales
Know the game 1950
Loosehead prop 1 1 15 8 8 Hooker 2 2 14 9 9 Tight head prop 3 3 13 10 10 Lock 4 4 12 11 11 Lock 5 5 11 12 12 Blind side flanker 6 6 10 13 13 Open side flanker 7 7 9 15 14 Number eight 8 8 8 14 15 Scrum-half 9 9 7 7 7 Fly-half 10 10 6 6 6 Left wing 11 11 5 2 5 Inside center 12 12 4 3 4 Outside Center 13 13 3 4 3 Right wing 14 14 2 5 2 Full back 15 15 1 1 1 Replacements 16 onwards, up to 22
1. Other common variations in the numbering is the interchange of 6 and 7 (particularly in South Africa and Argentina) or 11 and 14.
2. Wales avoided the number 13 for a number of years and therefore numbered 1-16.
3. Wales switched to letters in the 1930s but ended this practice during the 1950s.
Some clubs and international sides like Wales used letters instead of numbers,below is a picture of England vs. Wales in 1939 just after Derek Teden has scored the winning try. The Welsh players can clearly be seen sporting letters not numbers i.e. Woller (C) and Jenkins (A).
Some clubs, out of tradition, used special player labeling schemes for a number of years. Notably Leicester Tigers and Bristol used alternative schemes consisting of letters, whilst others Bath and Richmond used a scheme with no number 13. West Hartlepool hung up their No. 5 jersey in memory of their lock John How who died of a heart condition in a 1994 league match. Below you can see Bristol (letters) playing Bath (no number 13). The English Premiership sides have ceased using these special labeling schemes, to better aid the understanding of those new to the sport.
There also used to be regional variations to the way line-ups were listed. Most of the time, the first player mentioned is actually the number 15. The two mainstream styles of listing a line-up are 15-9 then 1-8 and 15-1. However, you may see the centers messed up and the same is often done to the back row.
The British media usually use the 15-9, 1-8 methodology, an article taken from Scrum.com (historian John Griffiths) explains this as follows:
"The first Test played under rugby union rules was Scotland v England at Raeburn Place, Edinburgh, on March 27, 1871. The most detailed coverage of that match appeared in the next day's edition of The Scotsman. Nearly 24 inches (60 cm) of column space was given to the game and the teams were prominently displayed to show clearly the players' positions on the field. The English Twenty was listed first, with the backs preceding the forwards. The so-called "Scotch" Twenty was listed underneath in the same way" - John Griffiths
Formations varied many times in the late 1800s. Teams were reduced to fifteen-a-side for the 1877 international matches, but it was not until 1894, when all four of the Home Unions adopted the four three-quarter system, that team line-ups began to resemble today's formations.
For many years teams were listed with the words full-back, three-quarters, half-backs and forwards added for clarification. Nowadays the British/Irish press assume their readers are familiar with team formations.
The earliest Test cards (programmes) that are still in existence date from the Scotland v England match of 1873 at Hamilton Crescent in Glasgow. The teams were listed from back to front on that card, as indeed they were on the England v Scotland 1876 card for the match at The Oval and the Ireland v England 1875 card for the game at the Rathmines Cricket Ground in Dublin - the earliest-known programmes still in existence for English and Irish home Tests.
It is probable that the media took the team lists from the match programmes. "
|No number 13 e.g.|
|Position||Standard Numbering||Bath & Richmond||Leicester||Bristol|
|Tight head prop||3||3||C||J|
|Blind side flanker||6||6||F||M|
|Open side flanker||7||7||H||N|
|Replacements||16 onwards, up to 22||17 onwards, up to 23||P onwards, up to V||P onwards, up to V|
Above, English brewers Ind Coope exploit the Leicester letters for their 1984 beer advertisement.
Since 1967, player numbering has been standardised by the IRB for international matches (as 1-15 and the replacements 16 onwards with 1 being loosehead prop and 15 being the fullback) i.e.
Back Row: 8
Second Row: 6,4,5,7
Front row: 1,2,3
1. Aberdeen Journal - Tuesday 17 February 1931