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Rugby vs Football – The Key Differences Explained

There is an ongoing debate between two great sports – rugby vs football.

Which is better? Tougher? Cooler?

All good questions. 

We’re going to focus much more on the differences between the two so that you can form your own opinion on the questions above.

I have played both these sports and I love watching and playing them equally. I have, admittedly, played more rugby than American football in my time, simply because that is the done thing in the North of England town where I grew up. That, plus a little rugby league, was my childhood, with many a day after school spent throwing the ball around at a local park.

Pitch vs field

Rugby pitches (often called fields) are bigger than American football fields. They also vary in size, just like soccer pitches, something that Americans on my teams have always found weird. An American football gridiron is always the exact same shape and size. It is 100 yards long and 53 1/3 yards wide, with two 10 yard end zones on the end. This means that no matter if you are in high school, college, or the NFL, you are going to be playing on the field with the same dimensions regardless.

A rugby pitch is 112-122 meters (122.5-133.4 yards) long and 68m (74.3 yards wide). Attached to the ends of this pitch are a pair of in-goal areas, the equivalent of an end zone, which can be from 5-22 meters (5.4-24.1 yards) deep.

Rugby Pitch compared to American football field
Rugby Field vs Football Field

These differences in size may not sound like much, but they make a big difference to how each game is played. My current club has a pitch that is actually longer AND wider than the legal limits, so we make sure to exploit the extra spaces by playing an attacking style using lots of width.

Balls and equipment

My very first introduction to rugby was a PE teacher announcing that, “Rugby is a game played by men with odd shaped balls!”

Obviously a group of middle school aged boys found this hilarious and a lifelong love affair with the sport was born. A rugby ball is basically what would be the result of someone sitting on a soccer ball for too long. It is not as aerodynamic as a football, but it does its job when it is thrown and kicked around the pitch. In layman’s terms, a rugby ball is longer, wider, and rounder than an American football. It also got rid of the laces around the time they stopped using a real pig’s bladder for inflation.

Photo by Hanson Lu

One of the most obvious differences between the two sports is the equipment required. In the rugby vs football debate, many point to the fact that rugby players wear far less equipment. You may have seen the memes where there is a truck load of American football equipment on one side and then nothing more than a mouth guard on the other for rugby. While this isn’t strictly true, it is clear that more padding is needed for the American sport.

The first time I was presented with the padding, and specifically the lower body padding, to play American football I basically had no idea where all the foam pieces went. I didn’t even want to wear half of them, feeling they would limit my range of motion in the knees and hips. Eventually I worked out how to put them on. The first time you take a helmet to the kneecap, you understand why that piece of foam is necessary.

An American Football Player. Photo by John Torcasio

The padding is certainly a necessary evil because of the difference in contact styles between the two sports. We will get into this more later, but realistically the only equipment similarities are mouth guards and footwear, with even American football cleats and rugby boots sharing very different stud patterns for optimum grip. It is worth noting that the longer I have played the more I have seen rugby players wearing ‘contact vests’ which is essentially a much lower end version of a football set of shoulder pads.

Playing the game

American football is played 11 vs. 11. Rugby is played 15 vs. 15. In football there is a roster of seemingly endless people who with sub in and out in an unlimited fashion, where in rugby you have a match day squad of 23 people and when you are subbed out for another player you are done for the day (with minor exceptions for injury/blood).

This leads to an interesting situation where rugby players have to, and can do, everything, while American football players tend to be far more specialized within the parameters of their position. A rugby fullback (my position) for example will have to run, pass, kick, tackle, ruck, and so on, while an American football free safety (also my position) will be much more specialized and training will focus on tackling, reading the game, and being fast over the ground.

“Rugby is a game for barbarians played by gentlemen. Football is a game for gentlemen played by barbarians.”

Oscar Wilde

When it comes to gameplay, the same basic idea is behind both games. Namely that you use whatever methods are legal within the game to move the ball down the field into your opponent’s end zone/in goal to score points.

Touch down or touchdown?

One note here is that in football you just half to have part of the ball over the goal line (in the air) to score, while in rugby part of the ball has to be touched down to the ground (with downward pressure) on or beyond the goal line to score. This is something that the American new players at our rugby club have often got wrong, with one example coming to mind of a player springing half the length of the pitch to score his maiden try, because slamming the ball down with a spike, turning the ball over to the other team in the process.

Completing the act, and not spiking the ball, is known as a try in rugby which gives you five points. In football a touchdown, even though the ball isn’t touched down (confusing!) is worth six points.

Conversions and extra points

These are then followed by a conversion/extra points that are worth two and one points respectively, making the whole act worth seven points.

In football, unless you are a low end college team, this kick should be automatic as it is right in front of the posts. In rugby, the kick is taken anywhere the player wants on a line directly back from where the ball was put down. This means that often a player will try to ‘center the ball’ running to the middle before putting it down and scoring a try.

In theory this is great. In practice there have been plenty of people made to look stupid as they are chased down and tackled while trying to center the ball. Back playing schoolboy rugby we had a player try to do this running around in goal trying to make the conversion better. He didn’t see an opponent coming from his blindside, a player who smashed the ball from his grip and three teeth from his mouth, one of which was never found.

That was the last game I ever played without a mouth guard.

Tackles and flow of play

For two games that are similar in physicality, football and rugby play in very different ways. Having always been a rugby player I found the stop start nature of football to be difficult to adjust to. In rugby a tackled player must release the ball making it live and, within a set of complicated rucking rules, available for both teams to play at. In football a tackled player signals the end of the play and both times are given time to reset and call/run another play.

This means that in rugby you see attacks consisting of 15 or 20 tackles (or phases) before the play is stopped because of an infraction or foul play. Going from that, where the ball can be in play for minutes at a time to the 10 second and restart nature of football isn’t easy.

In American football a team has four attempts to make 10 yards. If they fail the ball is turned over, hence why on fourth down teams will often punt for field position. This is a concept that is similar in rugby, a game where any player can kick the ball at any time. The theory here is that it is harder for the opposition to score coming out of their own end than it would be if they gained possession of the ball close to your own goal line.

The kicking game

A big difference in the games is that in rugby all kicks are live balls for both teams to attack and win. Thus a game may be turned by a great kick and chase. When a punt is boomed off in football, the defending team is the one with the rights to the ball and it cannot be contested by a player rushing downfield. This wasn’t the case in the original XFL, where punts were live, and where punt returners feared for their lives while looking up at every ball dropping down on them.

The two biggest differences between football and rugby are that in rugby you cannot pass forwards and also that you can’t block for a teammate.

The passing game

The first rule is what creates the fundamental pattern in which each game is played. In rugby it is illegal to pass the ball forwards at any point. You can run it forwards, you can kick it forwards, but any pass has to be lateral or backwards. In football you can pass forwards once a play, as long as the pass is made from behind the line of scrimmage, then lateral or back as much as you like.

This is why it is ironic that some of the most fun plays in American football history have come from panic based, rugby style passing at the end of the game. The famous example is ‘The Play’ where Cal beat Stanford and when “The band is on the field” became one of the most legendary lines in American sports announcing.

Blocking

The reason that we don’t see a lot of rugby style passing in American football is because of blocking and, specifically, the ability to hit a player who doesn’t have the ball. In rugby, this is illegal both offensively and defensively. The only players allowed to be contacted in open play (rucks are different) is the player with the ball. The flip side of this is that the ball carrier cannot run behind a wall of blockers, because an offensive player cannot contact a defender in that way. This is another rule new players in the US, usually old football players, struggle to deal with as the instinct is there to go and light up anyone not paying attention on the pitch.

Difference in physicality

Rules and laws aside, the most interesting difference between the two games, in my opinion, is how they work physically. People often ask which is tougher, with the answer being that they simply both are in their own way.

Rugby is great. The players don’t wear helmets or padding; they just beat the living daylights out of each other and then go for a beer. I love that.

-Joe Theismann, Former NFL Quarterback
Photo by Quino Al

The hardest I have ever been hit was in an American football game. I was scraping over to make a tackle as the opposition running back turned the corner when out of nowhere I was hit by what I assume to this day was a vending machine travelling at warp speed. If the hit had been to the head I would have had 17 concussions all at once, but instead I was granted with the inability to breathe for the rest of the day.

The way football is played, the way the players line up, and the fact that in general it is a game of tunnel vision as opposed to the 360 degree vision of rugby, means that the one-off hits in football are uncompromisingly brutal.

The flip side of that is that I have never been as all over tired and physically beaten up as after a rugby game. Football may have the bigger hits, though as rugby players continue to get on the strength and conditioning programs the difference is shrinking, but for the sheer number of hits in a game, rugby hurts in a very different way.

It is worth noting too that this is spoken from the point of view of a fullback. Players in the scrum have a far worse time of it, with everything they do during a game being highly attritional. A wide receiver may only be in contact four or five times a game, especially if he is one that only blocks when he has to, while a prop will be in countless collisions over the course of 80 minutes.

Put simply, both sports hurt. 

Both are brutal and physical, yet both have their moments of elegance and skill that mean that 26 years into a career, and with Sunday/Monday mornings being almost unbearable, there is still zero thought of hanging up the boots.

So, Rugby vs Football, which is better?

In conclusion, these are both great sports and there is no clear “winner.” Like most things in life, it’s all a matter of personal preference.  Which sport do you prefer, rugby or football? Let us know in the comments below!

Steve Wright is an active rugby and former football player. He has been playing rugby for two and a half decades, both 15s and 7s, and he is involved in the administration of the game along with being a player and a coach. His teams have been successful over the years, with his Wichita Barbarians squad being crowned D3 National Champions in 2015.

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