Almanac Rugby League: A forward explains rugby league

Forwards and backs are the two factions within a rugby league team. There’s no great love lost between them. Both have to put aside their prejudices to create a team but that doesn’t stop them from viewing each other with considerable suspicion. Here’s a forward’s take on the situation.




It is largely unknown to players and followers of the modern game that rugby league started off purely as a contest between opposition forwards who continually ran into each other and took no prisoners in set scrums. This pitted six men of statuesque physique, supreme fitness and superior intelligence into two packs set against one another.


In those days, the winner was the pack that won the majority of these violent confrontations. The debasement of the game began when backs were introduced. This unfortunate change to the game occurred because there was an ongoing problem as to where to locate the next scrum. Selecting positions on the ground for these had become a constant source of friction and a further, un-needed, reason for violence. The problem was resolved by employing forward rejects, men of small stature and limited intelligence, to run aimlessly around within the field of play.


Following a set piece, the ball would be thrown to one of them who would establish the next location either by dropping it or by throwing it to another reject who promptly dropped it. Very occasionally, a third reject would receive the ball before it was dropped. Crowds would cheer wildly on these rare occasions. Initially these additional players were entirely disorganised but, with the passing of time, they adopted set positions.


For instance, take the halfback. He was usually one of the smallest and least intelligent of the backs. His role was simply to accept the ball from a forward and to pass it on to one of the other rejects who would drop it, providing the new location for the forwards to compete. Given his general size, he could easily have been called a quarter forward or a ball monkey. But tolerance and compassion are the keys to forward play and the present euphemism was decided upon.


The five-eighth plays next to the halfback and his role is essentially the same except that, when pressured, he usually panics and kicks the ball. Normally he is somewhat taller and slightly better built than the halfback, hence his name. One-eighth less and he would have been a halfback, three-eighths more and he might well have qualified to become a forward.


The centres were opportunists who had no expertise whatsoever but wanted to share in the glamour associated with forward packs. After repeated supplication to the forwards for a role in the game, they would be told to get out in the middle of the field and wait for instructions. Thus, when asked where they played, they would reply ‘in the centre’. And, to this day, they remain parasites and scroungers who mostly work as flour millers, lawyers or used car dealers.


You may ask, why wingers? The answer is simple. Because they were players who had very little ability and were the lowest in the backline pecking order, they were placed as far away from the ball as possible. Consequently, and because the inside backs were so diligent in their assigned role of dropping the ball whenever they received it, the main contribution to the game made by the winger was to not get involved. Their instructions were to run away as quickly as possible whenever trouble appeared and to avoid tackles at all costs. The fact that the game was organised so that the wingers didn’t get to touch the ball led to an incessant flow of complaints from them and eventually the apt description of “whingers” was applied. Even though the “h” dropped out over the years, unfortunately, the whingeing itself has not.


Lastly, the fullback. This was the position given to the worst ball handler, the person least able to accept or pass the ball, someone who was always in the way. The name arose because the forwards would understandably become infuriated by the poor play demonstrated by that person and call out ‘send that fool back’. He would then be relegated well out of everyone’s way to the rear of the field. Over the course of time, ‘fool’ mutated into ‘full’, hence the modern terminology of fullback.


So there you have it. Let’s return to the glory days of a contest between two packs of six men of statuesque physique, supreme fitness and superior intelligence. The rest can go off to where they will be happier, playing soccer.


This story was supplied to the editors by rugby league fanatic John Leahy. According to John, the writer was a bloke who identified himself as ‘anonymous’. We’ll take it as read.


Our writers are independent contributors. The opinions expressed in their articles are their own. They are not the views, nor do they reflect the views, of Malarkey Publications.


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  1. Peter Fuller says

    As someone who has made a successful career of being confused, the intricacies of rugby league have always confounded me. Thanks to Anonymous, I am now significantly better informed. Loved it.

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