Football vs Rugby

American football and rugby are two popular full contact team sports that have some key similarities and differences. Both sports evolved from early forms of football played in England in the 19th century.

American football originated from the sports of soccer and rugby. The rules were first established by Walter Camp in the 1880s, who introduced the line of scrimmage, downs and the snap. American football became increasingly distinct from rugby over the decades with further rule changes. It rose to become one of the most popular sports in America.

Rugby also traces its origins to early forms of football played in England. The first rugby clubs were established in the early 1800s. Unlike American football, rugby has maintained a relatively similar set of rules over time. There are two main codes – rugby union and rugby league. Rugby union is more popular worldwide, while rugby league prevails in Australia and Northern England. Both rugby codes remain most popular in British Commonwealth nations.

While American football and rugby share common ancestry, they have diverged into distinctly different sports with contrasting rules, physical requirements and strategies. However, the competitiveness, physicality and teamwork involved in both sports account for their sustained popularity.

Basic Rules

American Football vs Rugby Rules

American football and rugby share some fundamental similarities but also have distinct differences when it comes to the basic rules of gameplay.

American football is played with 11 players on each team while rugby union has 15 players per team. Rugby league is contested by 13 players per side.

The playing field dimensions also vary significantly between the two sports. A regulation American football field is 120 yards long and 53 1/3 yards wide. Rugby pitches can range in size but a standard pitch is 100 meters long and 70 meters wide.

Both sports involve advancing the ball into the opponent’s end zone to score points. In American football, teams have four downs to move the ball 10 yards and earn a new set of downs. Rugby relies on a more continuous possession-based flow.

American football centers around short bursts of action with lots of stoppages between plays. Rugby has a more free-flowing nature with gameplay only stopping for penalties, injuries, or scores.

Possession changes frequently in American football after tackles or incomplete passes while rugby teams can retain possession for multiple phases before turning the ball over. Forward passes are integral in American football but largely prohibited in rugby.


American Football vs Rugby Positions

American football and rugby have some key differences in player positions and roles.

In American football, each team fields 11 players at a time.

The key positions are:

  • Quarterback – The leader of the offense, responsible for receiving the snap, passing, handing off the ball, and making reads and calls.
  • Running Back – Runs with the ball, catches passes, and blocks.
  • Wide Receiver – Runs routes to catch passes from the quarterback. Known for speed and agility.
  • Tight End – A hybrid receiver and blocker who lines up next to the offensive line.
  • Offensive Line – Five big men who block to protect the quarterback on passing plays and open holes for runners.
  • Defensive Line – Linemen who rush the passer and stop the run.
  • Linebacker – Defends against the run and covers receivers and tight ends.
  • Cornerback – Covers wide receivers one-on-one.
  • Safety – Provides help in defending runs and passes. Often the last line of defense.
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In rugby, each team fields 15 players.

The main positions are:

  • Flyhalf – Like the quarterback, the tactical leader and main distributor. Also acts as the kicker.
  • Scrumhalf – Retrieves the ball from the scrum and rucks and passes to the flyhalf.
  • Prop – The front row players in the scrum, used for power and stability.
  • Hooker – The player in the middle of the front row who “hooks” the ball back in the scrum.
  • Lock – Tall players who provide height in the lineouts and jump to win possession.
  • Flanker – Faster players who cover the pitch and breakdown points.
  • Number 8 – At the back of the scrum, often the primary ball carrier.
  • Wing – Fast outside players who score tries.
  • Fullback – Defends deep behind the main line of defense, acts as the last line of defense.

So while American football positions tend to be more specialized, rugby positions require players to be well-rounded athletes ready for both offense and defense.


American Football vs Rugby Ball

Both American football and rugby require special equipment and protective gear.

In American football, players wear helmets with facemasks, padded shoulder pads, thigh and knee pads, and shoes with cleats. The helmet and shoulder pads especially help protect players during tackles and blocks. Gloves are often worn by receivers to help catch the ball.

In rugby, players do not wear nearly as much protective padding – just a mouthguard for safety. Rugby players wear a jersey, shorts, long socks and cleats. Some athletes may opt to wear scrum caps, which offer light padding on the ears and top of the head, or thin shoulder pads for comfort when hitting the ground. But there are no helmets or heavy padding in rugby.

The lack of heavy padding allows for more free movement in rugby. However, it also increases potential for injury during tackles and colliding with other players. The extensive protective gear worn in American football provides more safety but can restrict motion. Ultimately, the equipment required reflects the hard hits and frequent high-impact contacts in American football versus the more continuous play and ball movement in rugby.


American Football vs Rugby Physicality

American football is known for being an intensely physical and violent sport with high-impact collisions on every play. Players wear extensive protective gear including helmets, shoulder pads, thigh and knee pads, and mouthguards. The hits are designed to stop momentum and bring down the opponent, often resulting in injuries. Late hits and excessive force are penalized, but big hits are celebrated as part of the game.

Rugby is also a full contact, collision sport but does not allow the same level of protective gear. Players only wear soft helmets and padded shirts for protection. Tackling techniques focus more on wrapping up the opponent compared to the impact hits in football. While still a rough game, the rules aim to promote player safety with penalties for high and dangerous tackles. Serious injuries do still occur but likely at a lower rate than football. The culture around physical contact also differs, as rugby players are expected to show respect before and after hard hits on the field.

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American Football vs Rugby Strategy

American football and rugby have some key strategic differences that set them apart.

American Football

American football strategy centers around getting the ball into the endzone to score points. Teams will utilize different offensive and defensive formations and plays in order to advance the ball down the field. Strategies like running the ball, short passing plays, and trick plays are used on offense. On defense, the strategy often focuses on blitzing, assigning coverage, and reading the opposing offense’s formations. Coaches will frequently substitute players situationally to gain a tactical advantage. The strategies used can change drastically between plays and drives.


Rugby strategy is more focused on ball control, territory, and fitness over time. There are fewer stoppages, so the strategy relies on players dynamically reacting to the flow of the game in real-time. On offense, strategies include moving the ball wide, kicking for territory, and maintaining possession through rucks and mauls. On defense, the strategy aims to pressure the offense into making mistakes and boxing them into their own end of the field. As rugby is a continuous game, the strategies rely more on tiring out opponents and capitalizing on their fatigue.


American Football vs Rugby Field

American football and rugby have different methods for scoring points during a game.

In American football, teams can score points in several ways:

  • Touchdown – 6 points. Awarded when a player carries or catches the ball into or across the opponent’s end zone. After a touchdown, the scoring team can try to kick the ball through the goal posts for an extra point (1 point) or run/pass it into the end zone again for a 2-point conversion.
  • Field Goal – 3 points. Kicked through the opponent’s upright goal posts.
  • Safety – 2 points. Awarded to the defense for tackling an offensive ball carrier in their own end zone.

In rugby union, scoring includes:

  • Try – 5 points. Similar to a touchdown, a try is scored when a player grounds the ball in the opponent’s in-goal area. After a try, the team can attempt a conversion kick through the posts for 2 extra points.
  • Penalty Kick – 3 points. Awarded for a penalty and kicked through the posts.
  • Drop Goal – 3 points. A dropped kicked through the posts during general play.

The different point values and scoring methods add to the distinct characteristics and strategies of each sport. American football tends to feature more scoring overall, while rugby scoring relies heavily on tries.


Fan Base Football vs Basketball

American football is the most popular spectator sport in the United States, with the NFL drawing over 15 million viewers on average per game. American football is largely confined to the US, with some limited popularity in Canada. While there have been attempts to expand the game abroad, it has not gained widespread appeal outside of North America.

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In contrast, rugby union has an estimated global following of over 900 million fans. Rugby union is popular throughout the British Isles, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, France, Italy, Argentina and Japan. The Rugby World Cup is one of the most viewed sporting events, with nearly 1 billion tuning in for the 2019 finals in Japan. Rugby Sevens, a variant of rugby union, is also an Olympic sport and part of the Commonwealth Games. Rugby league, another code of rugby, is popular in Britain, Australia and New Zealand.

So while American football reigns supreme as the most popular sport in America, rugby union and league have far greater worldwide appeal across several continents. Rugby continues to gain popularity globally while American football remains contained within North America.

Professional Leagues

NFL Team Players

American football’s major professional league is the National Football League (NFL). The NFL was founded in 1920 and currently consists of 32 teams across the United States. It’s the world’s richest sports league, generating over $13 billion annually.

The NFL has the Super Bowl, which is watched by over 100 million viewers annually and is among the most watched televised events in the world. College football also has a large following in the United States, with the NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision having over 120 teams. The Division I Football Championship game averages over 20 million viewers.

Rugby’s major professional leagues include the English Premiership and French Top 14 in rugby union, and the Super League in rugby league. Rugby union has traditionally been more popular in Southern Hemisphere countries like New Zealand, Australia and South Africa.

New Zealand’s national rugby union team, the All Blacks, is one of the most successful international sports teams ever. Rugby league has its origins in Northern England and is popular in Australia and New Zealand as well. While not as lucrative as American football, professional rugby still generates millions in revenue and has a dedicated global fanbase.

Key Differences

Difference Between Football vs Rugby

American football and rugby have similarities but several major differences.

  • American football has more protective equipment like helmets and pads, while rugby players wear little to no padding or helmets. Rugby relies more on proper tackling techniques to avoid injury.
  • American football has more specialized positions divided into offense, defense, and special teams. Each position generally focuses on a specific skillset like running, catching, or tackling. Rugby positions have more versatility and cover the whole field.
  • American football favors short bursts of high intensity action with lots of stops, substitutions, and strategy discussions between plays. Rugby has continuous open flowing gameplay with few stoppages outside of penalties and scores.
  • Scoring is more frequent and higher in American football. Games commonly finish with scores like 30-20. Rugby scores are lower with games often ending around 15-10.
  • American football strategy involves carefully planned plays and formations. Rugby utilizes more free-flowing improvisation.
  • American football is predominantly only popular in the U.S. Rugby has a strong international following, especially in Commonwealth countries.
  • The NFL is by far the dominant pro league for American football. Rugby has many strong professional and semi-pro leagues around the world.

Elvis Cook
Elvis Cook

Hello, I'm Elvis Cook, the author of As a former football player, I bring a unique perspective and firsthand experience to the content I create. Having played football myself, I have a deep passion and understanding of the game. My personal experiences on the field have shaped my love for football and ignited a desire to share my knowledge and insights with fellow enthusiasts.

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