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The Game of Choice: Rugby vs American Football

Rugby vs American Football

American football can be confusing for many people, especially those who are used to associating the term “football” with soccer. Unlike most places in the world, America sees football as a completely different sport.


There are several significant differences between the two sports which can help enhance our understanding of American football.

Here’s an in-depth look at how these two sports compare.

Origins and Evolution

Rugby originated in England in the early 19th century. It is named after Rugby School, where the game was first played. The sport has evolved into two main variants: Rugby Union and Rugby League.

American Football developed in the United States in the late 19th century, influenced by rugby and association football (soccer). Walter Camp, known as the “Father of American Football,” was instrumental in shaping the game, introducing key elements like the line of scrimmage and the system of downs.



  • Objective: The primary goal is to score points by carrying the ball over the opponent’s goal line (a try) or kicking it through the goalposts (a conversion, penalty, or drop goal).
  • Field: A rugby field is 100 meters long and 70 meters wide, with goalposts at each end.
  • Teams: Each team has 15 players in Rugby Union and 13 players in Rugby League.
  • Ball Movement: The ball can be carried, passed laterally or backward, and kicked. Forward passing is not allowed.
  • Game Duration: A rugby match consists of two halves of 40 minutes each.
  • Scoring: Points are awarded as follows:
    • Try: 5 points (Rugby Union) or 4 points (Rugby League)
    • Conversion: 2 points
    • Penalty Goal: 3 points
    • Drop Goal: 3 points

American Football:

  • Objective: The main aim is to score points by advancing the ball into the opponent’s end zone (a touchdown) or kicking it through the goalposts (a field goal or extra point).
  • Field: An American football field is 100 yards long and 53.3 yards wide, with end zones 10 yards deep at each end.
  • Teams: Each team has 11 players on the field at any time.
  • Ball Movement: The ball can be carried, thrown forward, or laterally. Forward passing is a significant aspect of the game.
  • Game Duration: An American football game consists of four quarters of 15 minutes each, with a halftime break.
  • Scoring: Points are awarded as follows:
    • Touchdown: 6 points
    • Extra Point: 1 point (kick) or 2 points (conversion play)
    • Field Goal: 3 points
    • Safety: 2 points

One significant difference is the way the ball is passed. In American football, forward passing is allowed, which is strictly forbidden and penalized in rugby. The only way to pass the ball forward in rugby is by kicking it. However, both sports allow passing the ball sideways or backwards.

The duration of the game is also different. A rugby game consists of two halves, each lasting 40 minutes with a break in between. American football, on the other hand, is played in 4 quarters, each lasting fifteen minutes, with breaks in between.



  • Ball: An oval-shaped ball, slightly larger than an American football.
  • Protective Gear: Minimal protective equipment, typically a mouthguard, scrum cap, and occasionally shoulder pads.
  • Uniform: Jerseys, shorts, and cleats.

American Football:

  • Ball: An oval-shaped ball, slightly smaller and more pointed than a rugby ball.
  • Protective Gear: Extensive protective equipment, including a helmet, shoulder pads, thigh and knee pads, and a mouthguard.
  • Uniform: Jerseys, padded pants, and cleats.

Another notable difference lies in the use of shoulder pads and kneecaps for protection in American football, while rugby players do not use protective gear for safety.

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This can lead some to assume that American football is softer than rugby, but in reality, watching a game shows just how intense and physical the sport can be.

Rules and Play


  • Play Continuity: The game is continuous, with fewer stoppages. When a player is tackled, play continues with a ruck or maul.
  • Set Pieces: Scrums and lineouts are critical for restarting play after certain stoppages.
  • Tackling: Tackles must be made below the shoulders, and players are not allowed to block opponents who do not have the ball.

American Football:

  • Play Structure: The game is played in a series of downs. The offense has four downs to advance the ball 10 yards. If they succeed, they get a new set of downs; if they fail, the ball is turned over to the opponent.
  • Set Pieces: Each play begins with a snap from the line of scrimmage.
  • Tackling: Players can be tackled anywhere on the body, and blocking is a significant part of the strategy.



  • Emphasizes continuous play and fluid movement.
  • Focuses on teamwork, with players frequently supporting the ball carrier and contesting for possession in rucks and mauls.
  • Kicking is used strategically to gain territory and create scoring opportunities.

American Football:

  • Emphasizes set plays and strategic planning.
  • Teams have specialized offensive, defensive, and special teams units.
  • Passing and rushing are key elements of advancing the ball, with intricate playbooks and formations designed for specific situations.

When comparing the popularity and viewership of rugby and American football, it’s essential to consider the global reach, regional preferences, and major events associated with each sport. Here’s an overview of how these sports fare in terms of popularity and audience size.

Global Popularity


  • Global Reach: Rugby has a strong following in several countries, particularly in the United Kingdom, Ireland, France, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and the Pacific Islands. It is also growing in popularity in countries like Japan and Argentina.
  • Major Events: The Rugby World Cup is one of the most significant events in the sport, attracting millions of viewers worldwide. The Six Nations Championship and The Rugby Championship are other major tournaments with substantial viewership.
  • Club Competitions: Club rugby leagues such as the English Premiership, Super Rugby, and the Pro14 also enjoy considerable popularity.

American Football:

  • Global Reach: While American football is most popular in the United States, it has a growing international fan base, particularly in Canada, Mexico, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Japan. The NFL has actively promoted the sport globally through events like the International Series.
  • Major Events: The Super Bowl is one of the most-watched sporting events globally, with millions tuning in from around the world. The NFL season, from regular games to the playoffs, also garners high viewership.
  • College Football: In the United States, college football is extremely popular, with large audiences for games and events like the College Football Playoff.

Viewership Statistics


  • The Rugby World Cup is one of the most-watched sporting events globally. The 2019 Rugby World Cup, held in Japan, drew a global cumulative audience of 857 million, with the final match alone attracting over 44 million viewers.
  • The Six Nations Championship and The Rugby Championship attract significant audiences, with millions watching each game.
  • Club competitions like the English Premiership and Super Rugby have dedicated fan bases, with viewership numbers in the millions.

American Football:

  • The Super Bowl is a cultural phenomenon, with the 2023 Super Bowl attracting an estimated 113 million viewers in the United States alone and millions more worldwide.
  • NFL regular season games average around 15-20 million viewers per game, with playoff games drawing even larger audiences.
  • College football games, particularly those involving major conferences and bowl games, attract millions of viewers.

Most Watched:

  • In terms of a single event, the Super Bowl stands out as the most-watched event between the two sports, with viewership numbers surpassing those of the Rugby World Cup final.
  • However, when considering overall global reach and regular viewership throughout the year, rugby has a broader international audience due to its popularity in multiple countries across different continents.

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