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Fullback - Position Guide

By Sam Smith
Christian Cullen was a fullback of the sensational variety and the greatest of all time. (Source/Sky TV)

As the name of the position suggests, the rugby fullback lines up behind the entire back line. For this reason, their primary role in the team is to act as a sweeper in defence. When carrying out this role, they may be asked to receive deep kicks from the opposition or tackle onrushing attackers who have broken through the defensive line.

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Due to their isolated role on the pitch, the fullback is under immense pressure. As a result, anyone who plays in the fullback position must have a strong heart and mind, as well as solid technical skills.

Think you have what it takes to excel as a fullback in a game of rugby union? Read our detailed position guide to find out.

What is a fullback?

The fullback has a number of responsibilities. Firstly, they must tackle opposition players who have managed to break through the defensive line. In this way, the fullback can act as the team’s hero and can prevent seemingly certain tries.

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However, although stopping onrushing attackers is an important part of the fullback’s role, this is not their only responsibility. This is because the fullback is also asked to field the opposition’s kicks and then gain ground by either running or kicking the ball back.

On top of this, fullbacks also play an important role when their team has gained possession. This is because the fullback may also be tasked with entering the backline at pace and then attempting to go through any gaps in the opposition’s defence. In this way, they work as an additional attacker and provide an overlap.

Other names for a fullback

Around the world, some rugby positions are known by more than one name. For example, a player in the second row is also known as a lock. Similarly, the fly half is sometimes known as the outside half or the first five-eighth.

Thankfully, this doesn’t happen with the fullback, who is known by the same term around the world.

What number is a fullback?

In a game of rugby union, each player in the starting XV wears the shirt number that directly corresponds to their position on the pitch.
For this reason, when you’re watching a game of rugby union, the fullback on each team will wear the number 15 shirt.

What is the average size of a fullback?

The size of a rugby fullback can vary substantially. This is because the size of the fullback is predominantly determined by their primary skill. For example, Jason Robinson was slightly undersized for a fullback, but he possessed blistering speed and an astonishing sidestep.

However, larger and taller fullbacks have much greater security under the high ball. While smaller fullbacks such as Jason Robinson are only around 1.73m (4ft 8in) tall, much larger fullbacks such as Jordie Barrett come in at an impressive 1.96m (6ft 5in). Anyone between these two heights can play at fullback, but the key is that your physical size must help you improve your best skill.

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Again, the weight of a fullback also varies depending on their size and key skill. While shorter fullbacks usually come in at around 85kg (187lbs), the tallest fullbacks can weigh as much as 100kg (220lbs).

Weight doesn’t necessarily directly impact how effectively a fullback can play, but anyone who plays regularly in this position must understand that the fullback has to make game-changing tackles on defence. Due to this, having a little bit of extra bulk can be helpful, unless your tackling technique is exemplary.

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What is the fullback’s role?

The fullback usually stands towards the back of the field. In order to effectively act as a sweeper, they must stand behind the main line of defence. This means that they’re often away from the other backs.

When in this position, the fullback’s main responsibilities are to stop onrushing defenders and to catch high kicks. Once they’ve successfully taken a catch, they must use their tactical awareness to decide what to do next. Depending on the game situation and the play in front of them, the fullback may choose to either return the kick or start a counter-attacking move from deep.

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On top of this, when their team is in possession, the fullback may also be asked to run into the back line at pace, providing an extra man. Then they can either work as a decoy runner or as an extra man who can create an overlap.

What is the fullback’s role in scrums?

At scrum time, the fullback plays a relatively limited role. This is because the scrum is the preserve of the forwards. However, if your team emerges from the scrum with possession, then you must be ready to take part in the play. This is because the fly half or the scrum half may decide to kick. If the opposition then receives the ball, they will likely kick it back. As a result, you must drop back into space.

Alternatively, the fly half or the scrum half may pass the ball and involve you in the play. In this instance, you may operate as a decoy runner, or you may be asked to carry the ball into contact.

There’s also a chance you may be asked to run if the ball is kicked over the opposition’s defence, although you’ll usually be asked to hang back in case the opposition receive the ball cleanly and return the kick.

If the opposition gains possession at the scrum, then you’ll be asked to defend a huge amount of territory. Due to this, you must work out how far back to stand and read the game correctly. Plus, you must also constantly scan the field and look for emerging threats. After all, the opposition may launch a high kick, opt to pass or kick low and through the defensive line. You’ll be under a huge amount of pressure and it’s your job to respond to all of these threats.

What is the fullback’s role in lineouts?

Similarly, the fullback also plays a limited role at the lineout. While the forwards contest for the ball, the fullback must cooperate with the other backs and work out whether they should join any potential attacks. However, depending on the coach’s game plan, the fullback may also be asked to patrol the open spaces and ensure the opposition cannot exploit any gaps if they emerge with the ball.

If the fullback is a particularly good kicker, they may also be asked to receive the ball and make a clearing kick if the ball is near their own try line.

What is the fullback’s role in open play?

Fullbacks play a vital role in open play. Due to the fact they’re involved in almost every phase of play, anyone playing as a fullback in rugby must be a good tackler, catcher and reader of the game.

In general, a fullback acts as a team’s last line of defence and as a surprise additional attacker. To operate effectively, the fullback must be a supremely confident communicator who can help organise a defence and inform their teammates about emerging threats. On top of this, the fullback is responsible for marshalling a large area of the pitch in case the opposition kick into space or burst through a defensive gap. Due to this, their positional awareness must be perfect and they must constantly assess whether they’re in the right position, or if they need to adjust.

Sometimes, they will also be charged with turning a defensive situation into an attacking one. This is because, once they’ve caught an opposition’s kick, they must decide whether to run or kick themselves. This means that a fullback must also be a tactically astute player who is calm under pressure.

The fullback has a lot of responsibilities in open play. However, their main responsibility is defending against chips, high kicks and grubber kicks. As well as this, they must defend against attackers who break through the defensive line. Essentially the last line of defence, the fullback is often the difference between a certain try and successfully keeping the opposition off the scoreboard.

Notable fullbacks

Christian Cullen is probably the greatest fullback of all time. (photo by Getty Images).

As part of our recent RugbyPass Hall of Fame fan vote, we asked our readers who they thought was the greatest fullback to ever play the game.

In a closely-fought contest, All Blacks legend Christian Cullen emerged victorious. He was closely followed by Springboks star Percy Montgomery, New Zealand’s Ben Smith and England’s Jason Robinson.

However, several current stars of the game also garnered votes, including Scotland’s Stuart Hogg and Ireland’s Rob Kearney.

FAQs

So, now you know all about the basics of operating as a fullback in a game of rugby union. However, to truly excel in the position, you need to know much more about how the best players in the world have made the position their own. To help you with your quest to become the player you can be, we’ve answered a number of popular reader questions. Read on to discover even more.

What makes a good rugby fullback?

To succeed as a rugby fullback at a high level, you must have good positional skills, an ability to stay cool under pressure and supreme confidence under the high ball.

On top of this, the best fullbacks in the world also possess the ability to:

  • Kick the up and under effectively
  • Kick for touch accurately
  • Defend well in one-on-one situations
  • Launch attacks

Traditionally, the world’s best fullbacks will have a preferred skill. For example, some fullbacks will be better under the high ball than others. Meanwhile, others will be elite kickers and readers of the game. However, all fullbacks must be at least competent in all of these skills. If the opposition believes that the fullback is unwilling to take contact or cannot catch a high ball, they’ll target them relentlessly.

What exercises do fullbacks complete in the gym?

To jump effectively and to launch long and high kicks, a rugby fullback must have strong legs. Plus, although they don’t need to be too muscular, fullbacks do need to have strong shoulders so they can withstand contact.

In order to ensure you have the physique required for a fullback, you should complete the following exercises in the gym:

  • Overhead presses
  • Wood choppers
  • Squats
  • Bench-press
  • Lunges
  • Deadlifts

Remember though, to be an elite fullback, you’ll also need to put in a lot of work on the training pitch. So, when you’re done in the gym, make sure you complete a lot of kicking and passing drills.

What standards must a rugby fullback meet?

Top level fullbacks must be powerhouses. By adding bulk and size, they’re able to withstand pressure when catching the high ball. They also then find it easier to tackle larger players who have managed to break through the defensive line.

Due to this, elite fullbacks can usually squat 1.6x their own bodyweight and bench press 1.3x their own bodyweight.

However, being a fullback isn’t all about bulk, weight and power. This is because a fullback is asked to cover a lot of ground and launch attacks from deep. Due to this, elite fullbacks can run 3km in around 3 minutes and 15 seconds, and sprint 40 metres in around 5 seconds.

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