Rugby sevens is fast and explosive. With fewer players on the pitch, things can appear chaotic, but even though sevens allows for individual creativity and flair, there is a backbone of structure in the modern game.
So, what are the different positions, and how do they work?
The seven starting players are split into three forwards (two props and a hooker) and four backs (scrum-half, fly-half, centre, and wing). Positions in sevens often share the same name as 15s, but are less rigid. You will often see players who can play in the forwards and the backs.
At HSBC SVNS 2024, players can pick their jersey number from 1 to 99. So, positions don’t correspond to the numbers on the player’s back as they do in 15s.
Sevens demands a high skill level from every player, forward or back. Players need to be able to pass, tackle, sidestep, offload and ruck. On top of this, every sevens player needs to be extremely fit and quick to keep pace with the game. Players can cover more than 10 kilometres during a tournament – and most of that distance is covered at high speed.
The Forwards: Props
Each team has two props: a loose-head and a tight-head. They are named, as in 15s, after their scrum positions, when the three forwards from each team bind and push against each other to compete for the ball. The loose-head is on the left and with an opposing player pushing into their right shoulder. The tight-head is on the right, with their head between those of two opposing players.
Props are destructive ball carriers with deft offloads. You’ll see them in rucks either securing or jackaling the ball – imagine a dynamic back-rower or a strong winger from 15s.
You often see one in the middle of the pitch as the main defensive tackler, while the other sits on the wing as a try-scoring threat. Being taller, both props lift in the lineout and are the main chasers, trying to regain the ball on any restart. They also lift smaller players when receiving a kick-off.
‘Strong and mobile’ is the mantra for any international sevens hooker. They are the rock in any good defence and the main turnover threat. As in 15s, they are the middle forward in the scrum, and it’s their job to ‘hook’ the ball back for their team. Unlike 15s, they lift in the lineout rather than throw.
A hooker’s job is often best seen on completion of a lineout or a scrum. They are expected to be the first player out, creating the link between forwards and backs. In attack, they are ready to run a support line or clear a ruck. In defence, they look after any attacks that step back towards them and pounce on jackal opportunities.
Traditionally, hookers were the epitome of physicality in sevens, covering huge distances while doing the ‘dirty work’. But it’s now common to see teams use their hooker as another playmaker, either by using another half-back or centre in the role.
The Backs: Half-Backs
When thinking about the scrum-half and outside-half positions it is worth considering them together. They are the two key playmakers, using their skills to create attacking opportunities. They can often swap roles during a game.
Half-backs are a blend of lightning-fast agility, silky skills and amazing spatial awareness. They make split-second decisions to run, pass or kick to create space for themselves or others. They are the heartbeat of any attack, so a strong relationship is vital.
A sevens defence traditionally consists of six players in the front line and one player in the backfield, known as the sweeper. This is usually one of the half-backs. They follow the play and plug holes in the defence, often making try-saving tackles. They normally cover the most distance during a game and must be incredibly fit.
In recent seasons we have seen the rise of the seven-up defence. This allows teams to put maximum pressure on the attack and force more turnovers. In this system, the half-backs normally split with one in the middle of the line and the other on the edge. The winger is often on the opposite side and they take it in turns to sit a few metres back in preparation for any kick behind the line.
On the topic of kicking in sevens, kick-offs are of paramount importance. In the reverse of 15s, whoever scores a try then gets to kick-off. So, whoever controls the restarts controls the game. Commonly, this job falls to the half-backs – you’ll often see one taking restarts and the other kicking conversions.
A scrum-half has a few specific roles. They are responsible for feeding the ball into a scrum and throwing the ball into a lineout. The latter skill is normally completely new to younger players but vital for them to master.
Both half-backs call plays but the fly-half – normally – has the final say. They sit as first receiver outside the scrum and lineout and have the best view of opportunities.
Centre is the most fun position to attack from but the hardest to defend in. The main reason is space: there’s lots of it and players can be exposed. Centres line up next to the fly-half at scrums and lineouts.
In defence, centres must be sharp enough to tackle at high speed as an opponent tries to go around them but also physical enough to stop someone running straight through them. It’s common to see centres at the top of the tackle and run stats by the end of a tournament.
Centres combine speed, footwork and upper body strength to beat their opposite defender and go themselves or release the winger. They are key to generating momentum in attack.
At kick-off, they normally marshal the midfield. Again, this can feel very exposed but centres revel in this pressure. It takes a lot of confidence to play in this position as each decision you make can be the difference between scoring and conceding.
Every sevens player would look quick on a 15s pitch but wingers are on another level. They are the highlight generators that all aspiring players want to emulate.
They sit on the edge in attack and defence, daring the opposition to take them on in a foot race. They are the primary try scorers but also make incredible chase-back tackles.
The one way to beat speed is organisation. Defences in sevens are now well-oiled machines. Being fast isn’t enough and this has given birth to freakish athletes. If you add footwork to an already fast winger, they are a scary prospect for any tackler. Bring in size and an attacking kicking game, and you create a try-scoring monster.
Wingers are normally the most dangerous runners. For this reason, teams use them in inventive ways. When there’s a midfield scrum, more sides stick a winger at first receiver. This gives them two sides and plenty of space to attack.
A winger’s speed is also handy at kick-offs. They often line up on the edge of the pitch and the kicker will look to land the ball just over the 10-metre line as the winger races onto it.
Each position in sevens offers a unique role that compliments the skills and physical attributes needed to play the game. Sevens is evolving each year and maybe in 10 years, none of these names will be used.
But for now, you can watch the HSBC SVNS 2024 and see the world’s elite push the boundaries of the sport.
By Luke Treharne