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What are the biggest differences between rugby and American football?

Matt Vincent
17.27K   //    03 Jan 2014, 17:08 IST

rugby american football

Rugby and American Football: What is the major difference between the two sports?

If you sit down to watch both a rugby game and a game of American football, the most obvious difference between the two is the players equipment. Rugby players wear a kit not dissimilar to a soccer player, with a shirt, shorts and socks and occasionally a scrum cap, which looks a bit like a shower cap but with a bit of padding on it.

American football is far more complicated. The players look dressed for war in helmets with face cages, shoulder pads, knee pads, gloves, elbow pads and cleats (boots) that look like basketball sneakers.

The equipment in American football is often mocked, with those who do not watch or understand the sport dismissing it as the “soft” version of rugby for people afraid of getting hurt. The truth is very different, as those who have played both sports can attest to. The equipment that American football players wear, most importantly the helmet, is very necessary to prevent injuries that are far less likely to occur in a game of rugby.

In rugby, the team without the ball lines up in a line and faces its opponents square on, holding their ground and waiting for a player with the ball to run at them. When they do, the player that runs at him will most likely have been running for a few yards at most, and both players will see it coming and brace for it. Like this:

A standard defensive line in a game of Rugby (credit:

A standard defensive line in a game of Rugby. The slow moving nature of the defensive line restricts the velocity of the majority of hits that take place during a game

In American football, tackles like that are not the most common occurrence. Defenders do not hold their ground and wait for the ball carrier to run at them. Instead, they run at the defenders. So while collisions in rugby often involve one player at a stand-still engaging with a player running at him at a decent speed, collisions in American football often involve two players running as fast as they can. You end up with hits that look like this:



However, that is not the end of the reasoning for a helmet and protective padding. You see the most dangerous thing about American football is that contact with a non-ball carrier is allowed. Essentially, while outside a scrum the only contact in rugby that is allowed is with the ball carrier, in American football everybody can and does hit everybody else.

This means that players can get hit from the side when they didn’t even know it was coming, and couldn’t do a thing to protect themselves from it. The player in white in the picture below (the Dallas Cowboys’ Jason Witten) gets hit extremely hard by the player in blue (Seattle Seahawks’ Golden Tate), and he didn’t have a clue it was going to happen. Collisions like this occur all the time in American football, hence the need for safety precautions like protective gear.

The Cowboys Jason Witten is decleated by Seattle wide receiver Golden Tate (credit:

The Cowboys Jason Witten is de-cleated by Seattle wide receiver Golden Tate (credit:

To see a useful video showing the differences between American football and rugby hits, right click and open a new tab here. The NFL hits begin at 1:00 min and the rugby hits begin at 5:50 mins.

Beyond the obvious differences in padding, by all accounts the games are similar. They are both violent sports that use physically gifted individuals with the goal of running with pace and power towards a scoring zone at the end of the field, with equally physically gifted players on the other team using brutal tackles and collisions to prevent them from doing that.

When the team finds themselves in a bad situation on the field, they can kick the ball, either back to the other team as far down the field as possible, or through the opposing team’s goal posts to score points for your own team. There are differences in the details (to score a try in rugby you have to touch the ground with the ball while in American football you simply need to have possession of the ball in the end-zone) and the terminology is different (touchdown and try, field goal and drop goal), but the premise of the game and the way points are scored is very similar.

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