5 Differences Between Rugby Union and American Football

Did you know English rugby is believed to date back to 1823 at the school of Rugby in Warwickshire, England?

    Have you ever looked at American football and thought that looks very similar to English rugby?

    Well if you take a close look there are certainly many similarities between the two.

    Both games aim to score points by getting the ball into the end zones or through the uprights and over the crossbar.

    However, a deeper look shows us how very different these two sports are.

    American Football and how rugby started.

    NFL pitch

    We all know American football is one of the most popular sports in the country.

    The game currently has 32 teams who compete in the National Football League (NFL).

    The regular NFL season culminates each February with the Super Bowl, a huge 4-hour event anticipated by many US sports fans but also by an ever-growing UK fanbase.

    So, what about rugby? Well, the first game of rugby is widely believed to have been played in 1823 at the school of Rugby in Warwickshire, England.

    It started when a chap named William Webb Ellis first ran with the ball in hand.

    There is no substantial evidence to support this theory but it is the most popular view, and the Rugby World Cup is named by the international committee after Ellis.

    There are also 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.

    Now let’s look at the 5 differences.

    Difference #1 – The number of players in a team.

    An English rugby team

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

    Rugby has a field of 15 players who stay on the pitch for the entire game, whereas in American football there are only 11 players on the pitch at any one time.

    Football teams are also primarily made up of 2 teams of 11 players, 11 who play offense and another team of 11 who play defense with the entire team switching when play turns-over.

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

    Difference #2 – Team make up.

    American football quarterbacks

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

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

    So, 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 running up the field.

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

    Rugby, however, is made up of eight forwards and seven backs.

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

    Generally, the fastest runners and kickers of the team are the ones who score many of the points.

    Difference #3 – Game flow.

    An American football pitch

    The next biggest difference is the game flow and how this affects strategy.

    In American football you are much more likely to see short, fast and tactical plays led by the Quarterback.

    This is contrary to rugby which is more of a slower build with an emphasis on slow progression down the field, looking for a gap to run through and score points.

    This could be down to the difference in plays.

    In American football, the ball must travel at least 10 yards in four downs for the offensive team to keep possession.

    The ball cannot touch the ground before it is caught (except for a fumble) or go out of play for this to be successful.

    If the defensive team manages to prevent this, play starts again and the offense loses one down.

    If the 10-yard threshold is not met by the fourth down possession is turned over.

    This is dissimilar to rugby union where play continues regardless of how many times the team has been tackled.

    Also, unlike in American football where the Quarterback will often throw the ball forward during a play, in rugby, the ball can only be thrown sideways or backward.

    Difference #4 – Scoring. 

    Rugby scoring board

    Whilst following a similar narrative in scoring there are many intricate differences between the two:

    The best way of scoring in both games is via a touchdown in football which is worth 6 points or a try in rugby worth 5 points.

    To score a touchdown the ball needs to be carried into or caught inside the end zone.

    Whereas in rugby the ball has to touch the ground inside the end zone for the points to be awarded.

    After this in both sports, teams have an opportunity to score further points – a kick through the uprights and over the crossbar is worth 2 points in rugby and 1 in American football.

    In football, another option available after a touchdown is for the offense to try to pass and run the ball to the end zone for another 2 points.

    Field goals are also prevalent in both sports and are worth 3 points.

    There is one subtle difference; in football, the ball must be handed to a teammate who places the ball down on the ground for the kicker, and in rugby, the ball must bounce before being kicked.

    Finally, in American football, a safety worth 2 points is awarded to the defense if the ball becomes dead or an offensive player is tackled or forced out of bounds in their own end zone.

    In rugby, a team can use a penalty to try and kick the ball from where the offense occurred through the posts for 3 points.  

    Difference #5 – Game timings.

    An American football score board

    The game timings and stoppages in both games make for one of the biggest differences between the two.

    American football is split into four quarters of 15 minutes, and Rugby consists of two 40-minute halves.

    In American football, there are also allowances for three-time outs per half for a team to use.

    However, there are no time outs in rugby and the only person who can stop the clock is the referee for stoppages such as serious injuries or consulting with other officials.


    So, despite their shared similarities, the two games are actually very different, and both make for a compelling watch!

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About The Author

Sue Longstone
Sue Longstone

Sue is a sports graduate and ex amateur soccer player. She is an all round sport and nerdy culture fan who loves finding a new story or game to dive into. Her interests include travelling, reading and learning to play the keyboard.

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