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The 'outdated' notion an England rugby columnist wants to bin

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Alex Davidson/The RFU Collection via Getty Images)

Names of the back of rugby shirts will be a talking point this weekend following the recent headlines generated by England confirming they will put them on their jerseys for the Autumn Nations Series, starting on Sunday versus Argentina at Twickenham. However, one advocate of the names on rugby shirts campaign wants club teams in England to take this initiative a step further and allocate squad numbers to players for the duration of an entire season.

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Former Newcastle newspaper writer Mark Smith now works as the media manager for the Gallagher Premiership Falcons and his latest match programme column for Saturday’s Kingston Park home game versus Bath has debated the idea that names on squad numbered shirts would be a long-term positive for the sport in England and beyond.

Smith first raised the idea on social media but his suggestion was generally rubbished by rugby fans. However, he has now revisited the topic and made an impassioned plea for rugby minds to become more open to the idea of change to help grow a sport in England that is struggling to regain ground lost due to the pandemic stoppage.

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“Rugby needs to start thinking differently to attract and retain new supporters, but my recent suggestion regarding shirt numbers took a right old battering when I aired it on Twitter,” began Smith in the neatly produced digital match programme that can be accessed by clicking here.

“The catalyst was the fact international rugby is finally catching up to the club game by having names on the back of the players’ shirts during the autumn internationals – hardly revolutionary, but welcome nonetheless. My idea was that Premiership clubs move to squad numbers rather than the traditional one to 15, so each player at the start of each season gets their own squad number, unique to them, with their name and number on display for each game.

“Currently, the clubs have players numbered one to 15 with names, which to seasoned rugby watchers seems to be the ideal scenario. On a practical level, this means clubs have to name and number hundreds of additional shirts each season to fit every conceivable selection possibility, incurring a financial hit at a time when the sport hardly needs it.

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“For a Ben Stevenson or a Sean Robinson this can mean playing in three or four different numbers, home and away, so you are up to six or eight shirts for one player before you even start accounting for spares. The finance is a side issue for me because the real benefit comes from the marketing and branding opportunities offered up by each player having their own unique number.

“If I see a Newcastle Falcons No15 shirt, am I thinking of Elliott Obatoyinbo, Tom Penny, Alex Tait, Iwan Stephens, Louie Johnson, Josh Thomas or Nathan Earle? It’s currently a lottery, and there is no immediate association between the shirt number and the player wearing it.

“‘Oh, I really liked that Falcons No.15 last week’. ‘Ah, actually last week’s 15 is wearing ten today, and last week’s ten is wearing twelve today, and last week’s twelve is in 13, and eleven and 14 have swapped shirts too’. At a time when we need to be attracting new supporters, it just feels like an unnecessary barrier.

“The main argument on Twitter was that people want to know what position someone is playing in but in this ultra-professional era, the issue of set roles is somewhat of a misnomer other than at the set-piece. Even then, you will get No8s packing down at blindside flanker and fly-halves defending on the wing at a scrum, while the lineout often sees wingers at the front and flankers at half-back.

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“In general play, you get props jackalling, wingers in at scrum-half, fly-halves standing at full-back and hookers putting in a cheeky grubber, and are we really asking rugby newbies to learn all 15 positional roles by heart before they can feel part of it? It’s time to let go of this outdated notion that the number on your back dictates the limitations of your role, and if existing rugby supporters are the only people upset by the change, then that’s fine.

“It’s the new guys that we need to draw in, and if that means simplifying things by allowing Ben Stevenson to wear a No45 shirt for the entire season, then so be it. Let’s have a ‘Stevo45’ range in the club shop, change his Instagram handle to @stevo45, and get it on his boots.

“On its own, I’m not pretending it’s the answer to rugby’s problems, but at a point when we need new eyeballs on the sport we need to be more open in our thinking.”

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