In the modern game of rugby it would be inconceivable to launch a backline attack without including the full-back. But that was not always the case. Even as recently as the 1950’s the full back rarely if ever entered the attacking line and remained in the backfield “minding the house” so to speak. It wasn’t until the late 50’s and early 60’s that full-backs became an integral part of the backline attack.
Back then defensive systems really didn’t exist. In fact defensive systems, beyond organizing the defence from set-pieces, did not become an integral part of Rugby Union until the late 1990’s. Defensive systems as we know them nowadays in Rugby Union were introduced to the game by Rugby League coaches. So the need for the full-back to enter the attacking line was really an unnecessary chore that became more fashionable and productive as the game developed tactically over 50 years ago.
Nowadays the full-back spends as much time in attack as they do in defense and their addition to the attacking line consistently asks questions of the defense. The attacking full-back is the extra attacker in the line, as the defense attempts to defend the gain-line while keeping their own full-back in the backfield to cover kicks. In fact the modern full-back often has all the running passing and kicking skills of the fly-half, but also has more pace and is much better at fielding the high ball.
At the set-piece the full-back can enter the attacking line in various channels of the attack. The traditional channel is outside the outside center and inside the wing. But full-backs can inject themselves into the attacking line almost anywhere to challenge the defense. Between the centers is also a common channel in which to employ the full-back, running as a decoy or striker. But where they actually enter the attack is down to the imagination of the coach designing the attacking play.
What gives the full-back so much flexibility in their attacking position is they are never defended by their opposite number. The opposition full-back always remains in the backfield, unless the attack is close to their goal line. It is because of that flexibility the full-back can be used in numerous positions across the back line in a set-piece attacking move.
Apart from using the full-back as an integral part of the set-piece attack they can execute other important roles in the attacking game plan. During phase attack the full-back can be used to switch the direction of the attack a lot more effectively than the fly-half. As the fly-half is often the “1st Receiver” throughout a lot of attacks (i.e. they are usually the first player to receive the ball directly from the scrum-half), using the fly half to change the direction of the play will rarely trouble a defense too much.
On the other hand using the full-back in that ‘1st Receiver’ role during phase play can wrong-foot the defense very effectively. Because the defense is focused primarily on defending the fly-half, putting the full-back in the 1st Receiver position while changing the direction of the attack will often catch the defense unawares.
This tactic is often used when the attack is moving in one direction, say left to right across the field, and once the attack reaches the mid-field the full-back appears at 1st Receiver changing the attack from right to left.
Nowadays with some attacks accumulating phases into double figures, the full-back can be used as a play maker in the multi-phase attack. This effectively gives the team a second fly-half and opens up a lot more attacking options or the team. If a team were to go through every phase of their attack with the fly-half as 1st Receiver, the attack would become very predictable and that would make life very easy for the defense.
Because of their kicking skills the full-back is often used as a kicking option. This again can cause major problems for the opposition defense as the backfield defenders will find it very difficult to defend against an attack that has a full-back as a kicking option as well as a fly-half. Also, the full-back sharing the kicking duties with the fly-half takes a lot of pressure off the fly-half. This is of particular importance when the objective of the attack is to kick for field position into the opposition half.
The full-back is also the player that on most occasions launches a counter attack from their own half. The full-back is usually heavily involved in deciding whether to run, pass or kick when in possession in the backfield, when most of their team-mates are in front of them. They need to have the vision and organizational skills to make that vital counter attack decisions, because if they get it wrong it is usually catastrophic for their team.
So the modern full-back has to have all the attacking skills and flare of a fly-half along with nerves of steel under the high ball and that is without every mentioning their defensive duties which are many.
Famous household names like: Tom Kiernan, Andy Irvine, JPR Williams, Serge Blanco, John Gallagher, Christian Cullen, Chris Latham, Geordan Murphy and Mils Muliaina all fit the profile of the modern Rugby Union Attacking Full-Back.