Leadership potential for the number eight role

Peter Tann, one of the regular contributors to Better Rugby Coaching, offers his coaching insight into the number 8.


Much of the defensive role of a blindside flanker (6) is applicable to the number 8. Certainly, the first job of the number 8 from scrums and lineouts is to cover the gap between the set piece and the backs. Should the opposition play back into this area, then it is the number 8's job, along with the flankers (6 and 7), to make the tackle.

Here the back row should be working together. For example, the number 8 and a flanker (usually the openside flanker, number 7) can work like a pincer, with one targeting the inside, the other the outside of opposition fly half (10).

Defensive lineouts

An option from lineouts (especially where your pack is strong) is to have the number 8 line up with the backs to cover their fly half. Your fly half then covers their inside centre (12), and so on.

Assuming the ball is not thrown deep to the tail of the lineout, your flankers and your number 8 can now target the fly half. Your backs are now also able to counter any extra man introduced into the backline by the opposition.

Given the possible vulnerability of your lineout to a catch and drive, you may wish to reserve this for play outside your 22m area.

Defensive scrums

From scrums the key issue is to identify which of your players will target which of their players from a back row move. My preference is:

  • Attack goes left: Your blindisde flanker (6) takes their first man coming round the scrum, 8 the second.
  • Attack goes right: Your scrum half (9) takes their first man coming round the scrum, 8 the second. Your openside flanker (7) covers.

No. 8 Scrum Defence


Given the influence the number 8 has, it makes an ideal position from which to lead. Therefore, you should consider the leadership potential of the position.

It can be used to give a player their first taste of leadership, preparing them for greater responsibility in the future, particularly if they have been identified as someone with the potential to lead the whole team. As such, the number 8 could be given specific responsibilities in order to enable them to develop their leadership skills.

When passing on responsibilities, bear in mind the relative experience of the player. If they are new to the team, let them concentrate on the basic playing demands of the position first before gradually introducing more leadership elements.

Like all other aspects of rugby coaching, planning and preparation for leadership development in this way will be far more productive than simply assuming that it is happening.

But a word of warning. Remember to select the number 8 first and foremost on the basis of his playing strengths. The development of a leader is a welcome bonus. For instance, neither Zinzan Brooke nor Dean Richards captained their countries, yet both were great players who went on to became important leaders within their teams.

Decision maker

In many ways this quality is intertwined with leadership, in that a crucial element of leadership is making effective decisions at the right time. However, coaches should also assess their number 8's decision making ability in its own right.

For example, how can you help develop the number 8's ability to call an appropriate back row move? What cues are you expecting him to recognise and take advantage of? Can he go beyond the relatively limited range of decisions concerning the effective execution of a sub unit's skills? (In this case a back row move from a scrum.) And can he consider the relevance and influence of his decisions to the overall performance of the team?

As a coach, I ultimately want my number 8 to move beyond a decision making focus based wholly or largely upon competence. That is to take a wider focus than the narrow "what do I/we need to do for this move to succeed?", and also consider "added value" ideas, such as "what can I/we best do in this situation to enhance the team's performance as a whole?".


The best number 8s are probably one of the best players in the team. They can perform most of the functions of all the team extremely well.

They also need to be part of the team's strategy decisions, either as a leader or certainly as a key member of the smaller group of captain and coach.

The spine of the team is 2, 8, 9, 10, 15. But 8 must be a thinker – this is the challenge for coach and player alike.

Click here to read more rugby coaching tips and tactics to help your number 8 player maximise their potential.

International Rugby Coaching is a good source of inspiration if you are a high-performance coach.

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