5 Differences Between Rugby Union and American Football

Did you know that English rugby dates back to 1823 at the school of Rugby in Warwickshire, England?

Have you ever noticed the similarities between American football and English rugby?

Although both games aim to score points by getting the ball into the end zones or through the uprights and over the crossbar, a closer look reveals the striking differences between the two sports.

American Football and Rugby Origins

American football is one of the most popular sports in the United States with 32 teams competing in the National Football League (NFL).

The regular NFL season ends with the Super Bowl, a 4-hour event eagerly anticipated by US sports fans, as well as an ever-growing UK fanbase.

The first game of rugby is believed to have been played in 1823 at the school of Rugby in Warwickshire, England, when William Webb Ellis ran with the ball in hand.

Although there is no conclusive evidence to support this theory, the Rugby World Cup is named after Ellis by the international committee.

There are two types of rugby, Rugby Union and Rugby League, and even these two have a fair few intricate differences, but let’s take a look at 5 differences between Rugby Union and American football.

Difference #1 – The Number of Players on the Field

The first and most obvious difference between American football and Rugby Union is the number of players on the field.

Rugby has 15 players on the field for the entire game, whereas American football only has 11 players on the field at any given time.

Football teams consist of two teams of 11 players, 11 playing offense and another 11 playing defense with the entire team switching when play turns-over.

A third special team can also be utilized, normally when there is a kick involved.

Difference #2 – Team Composition

Due to the fundamental difference in gameplay, a rugby team must cater to both attack and defense at all times on the field, whereas each football team is set up entirely for either attack or defense.

The most prominent player in American football is the Quarterback as he makes all the tactical decisions on the field.

The offensive team has two main objectives; protect the Quarterback and progress 10 yards down the field.

The defense must stop this from happening by attacking the Quarterback and stopping the other players from running up the field.

The only exception to this is when the special team comes on during a kick play.

Rugby, on the other hand, is made up of eight forwards and seven backs.

The forwards are typically taller and more physical players who compete for the ball, while the backs tend to be more agile and faster.

In general, the players who are the fastest runners and kickers on the team tend to score the most points. The biggest difference between American football and rugby is the game flow and how it affects strategy. American football is characterized by short, fast, and tactical plays led by the quarterback, while rugby is a slower build with an emphasis on slow progression down the field. A major factor in this difference is the plays themselves: in American football, the offensive team must move the ball at least 10 yards in four downs to keep possession, and the ball cannot touch the ground or go out of bounds. In rugby, however, play continues regardless of how many times the team has been tackled, and the ball can only be thrown sideways or backward.

Scoring is similar in both sports, with touchdowns in American football and tries in rugby being the best way to score points. However, there are many intricate differences between the two. In both sports, teams have an opportunity to score further points through kicks, but the number of points awarded for these kicks varies. Field goals are worth 3 points in both sports, but in American football, the ball must be handed to a teammate who places it on the ground for the kicker, while in rugby the ball must bounce before being kicked. Finally, American football awards 2 points for a safety, while in rugby a team can use a penalty to try and kick the ball through the posts for 3 points.

Game timings also differ between the two sports. American football is split into four quarters of 15 minutes each, with three time outs per half, while rugby consists of two 40-minute halves.

In rugby, the clock is not stopped and only the referee has the authority to pause it for reasons like severe injuries or discussing with other officials. Although rugby and American football have some similarities, they are actually quite distinct from each other, resulting in exciting viewing experiences for fans of both sports.


1. What is the main difference between Rugby Union and American Football?

Rugby Union and American Football have many differences, but the main one is the way the game is played. Rugby Union is a continuous game where the ball is constantly in play, while American Football is a stop-start game where the clock is stopped on every play. In Rugby Union, the players are required to pass the ball backwards, while in American Football the ball can be thrown forwards.

2. What are the differences in terms of physicality?

Rugby Union and American Football are both physical sports, but the level of physicality is different. In Rugby Union, players are allowed to tackle each other without any protective gear, while in American Football players wear helmets and pads to protect themselves from injury. Additionally, Rugby Union players are required to play both offense and defense, while in American Football players specialize in either offense or defense.

3. What are the differences in terms of scoring?

The scoring systems for Rugby Union and American Football are also different. In Rugby Union, a try is worth 5 points and a conversion kick is worth 2 points, while in American Football a touchdown is worth 6 points and an extra point kick is worth 1 point. Additionally, American Football has field goals, which are worth 3 points.

4. What are the differences in terms of game length?

The length of a Rugby Union game is 80 minutes, while the length of an American Football game is 60 minutes. However, due to the stop-start nature of American Football, the game can take much longer to complete. In Rugby Union, the clock is stopped only for injuries or when the ball goes out of bounds.

5. What are the differences in terms of popularity?

American Football is more popular than Rugby Union in the United States, while Rugby Union is more popular in other parts of the world, especially in Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. American Football is also more widely watched on television, with the Super Bowl being one of the most watched events in the world each year.

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