Difference between Rugby and American Football

Updated on February 24, 2018

There has always been a lot of discussion among sports fans about which of the two sports is more demanding and tough. Both are derived from the basic rules of football, but each has added some elements which make the game more compelling and entertaining. However, confusion may sometimes arise from the fact that Americans still call this sport football, while they refer to the traditional form of European football as soccer, and others consider what Americans play as a form of rugby, which once again is different from the traditional form of rugby. So which is which?


Rugby players in the 2009 Challenge Cup, match between Wigan and Barrow Riders

Rugby is a type of football developed in an English town called Rugby in the 19th century which is now played worldwide. Originally, as the game was played between 1750 and 1823 at the Rugby School, there was no limit to the number of players on the field and no one was allowed to pick the ball up. It is said, but has not been proven, that William Webb Ellis was the one responsible for picking up the ball and running with it. The innovation is thought to have been introduced in the game sometime between 1820 and 1830.

If you have sometimes come across contradictory information regarding this game, it is because there are two sets of rules; this was a result of the split which formed the Rugby Union (former amateurs, working class players turned professionals being paid to play) and the Rugby League (reserved for gentlemen and amateur university rugby teams) in 1895.

Rugby Union rules mean teams of 15 people playing 2 rounds of 40 minutes with a 10 minute break. The ball they play with is a prolate spheroid, 27 centimeters long. The object of the game is to carry the ball or to kick it across the field, to the opponent’s touch line. A goal resulting from having carried the ball is called a try. The only protective gear required in this game is the mouth guard. Possessing the ball requires strength and agility, and the game itself is aggressive and many injuries occur. The field the game is played on is 100 meters long and 70 meters wide with 20 meter wide goal areas. The game is monitored by 4 referees.

American Football
American Football

American football is the game Americans identify as football, which creates a lot of confusion among those less passionate about sports. In reality, the game evolved from both football and rugby and has been played since 1869 by college teams. As more and more universities adopted the game, its rules became more and more refined. Walter Camp, a Yale student, is the one who secured most of them in 1880. The game went from its amateur to its professional era in 1892 when players were paid to play for a certain team. The most popular American football competition is the Super Bowl.

American football teams are made up of 11 players trying to score points by carrying or kicking the ball over the opponent’s touch line in four 15 minute quarters. Each goal is called a touchdown. The ball is a prolate spheroid, 28 cm long. American football players need to wear protective gear for every match: helmet and mouth guard, protection with special pads for the chest and shoulders as well as upper leg padding. The game is intentionally aggressive, players constantly being tackled and hit, and is played on a field that is almost 110 meters long and over 90 meters wide, with two 10 meter end zones. There are between 3 and 6 referees to a game.

Rugby vs American football

So what is the difference between rugby and American football?

Both of them are aggressive games derived from football, although chronologically, rugby was the first football derivative, while American football is a derivative of both football and rugby. In both cases, the idea of the game is to carry or kick the ball over to the opponent’s touch line. They have tackles in both games.

American football players have a lot of protective gear, compared to rugby players, but there are fewer players on the field, making the action easier to follow and more intense for each participant. While rugby players have no extra protective gear, they are more numerous on the field.

Both games have enough elements to please the fans and in both cases the players are up for some pretty challenging experiences. It all depends on what you like to watch and, in this case in particular, where you are from and what term you associate with what type of sport.

Comparison Chart

RugbyAmerican football
15 players on a team11 players on a team
Ball is a prolate spheroid, 27 cm longBall is a prolate spheroid, 28 cm long
Objective: carry or kick the ball over the opponent’s touch lineObjective: carry or kick the ball over the opponent’s touch line
Game has two 40 minute roundsGame has four 15 minute rounds
Aggressive game with tackles and pile-upsAggressive game with tackles and pile-ups
Only mouth guard worn as protective gearHelmet, mouth guard, shoulder pad, chest pad, upper leg pad
A goal resulting in the ball having been carried to the touch line is called a tryAny goal is called a touchdown
100×70 meters fieldRoughly 110×90 meters field
4 referees3 to 6 referees
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