Rugby vs. American football: what are the differences?

Rugby vs. American football: what are the differences?

by Laura Jones

Updated May 12, 2022

Wondering what the difference is between rugby vs American football? The two sports are pretty similar in many ways; they are both very physical games with the objective being to score as many points as possible to win. But, there are some key differences that make playing and watching these sports a very different experience. The sports vocabulary you can learn is useful too – and not just on the pitch, you can use it in the office as well.

From team size and equipment to which sport is more dangerous, here are some of the differences between rugby and American football.

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The equipment and the field

If you’ve watched either of the games on TV, the first thing you might have noticed is how different the players look. In American football, players must wear a helmet, shoulder and chest pads, leg protectors and a mouthguard. It’s like a modern-day suit of armor. Meanwhile, over on the rugby pitch, players usually only wear a mouthguard (also called a gum shield). And their kit, of course. 

A rugby ball is one centimeter shorter than an American football but is fatter in the middle. And the playing fields are different sizes too; American football fields are about ten meters shorter and more than 20 meters narrower than the larger rugby pitches. 

The rules

First, the team sizes are different in rugby and American football. There are 15 players allowed on the field at a time for a rugby union team, but just 11 at a time on an American football team. A rugby game is longer too: 80 minutes with two forty-minute halves vs a 60-minute game divided into quarters in American football. 

One major difference between the sports is that you cannot pass the ball forwards by hand in rugby. In American football, one forward pass per play is allowed. In both games, players can kick the ball. 

As we said earlier, the aim is to score as many points as possible (the only sport that seems to be an exception to this is golf). In American football, players try to score touchdowns by carrying the ball over the opponent’s line. In rugby, players aim to score a try (it’s the same thing!) by placing the ball on the ground over the opponent’s line. In both sports, players can also kick goals. If you want to learn how to use sports vocabulary in new ways, take a look at these idioms.

Which is more dangerous, rugby or American football?

The answer to this isn’t 100% clear. If you look at the injury rates in rugby and American football, there are more injuries in rugby and players disappear from the pitch with blood streaming down their faces fairly regularly. However, these are often superficial cuts and serious injuries seem to happen more often in American football, though spinal injuries are a problem in rugby.

Head injuries and concussions happen much more frequently in American football, perhaps because players hit harder due to the protection they think they get from the padding. So maybe, rugby is slightly safer than American football. But if you’re looking for a truly safe sport, you might want to think about table tennis.

Did American football evolve from rugby?

You may be surprised to learn that American football didn’t evolve from rugby. They both evolved from an early rugby/soccer-style game played in the UK in the 19th century but developed separately. The first American football game was played on November 6, 1869, in New Jersey. Rugby was probably established a bit earlier back in 1845 at Rugby School in England.

What is bigger, American football or rugby?

Geographically, rugby is the bigger sport. American football is, perhaps unsurprisingly, mainly played in the US and this is where a lot of the money is in the sport. It is popular outside the US too though, especially in Canada. Rugby, on the other hand, is played in over 100 countries across the world and is especially popular in the UK nations, Ireland, France, Italy, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

There’s a huge culture around American football in the US, with tailgating parties and massive half-time shows at the Super Bowl. One of the similarities between the two sports is that they are both especially popular among college – or university – students in the US and the UK.


Are rugby and American football the same?

It’s pretty clear that, while the two sports do share some characteristics, there are big differences in the size of the teams and playing fields, the equipment they use and the rules of the games. Is rugby better than American football? Your answer probably depends on what you grew up watching, but rugby’s popularity is certainly on the rise. 

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Laura is a freelance writer and was an ESL teacher for eight years. She was born in the UK and has lived in Australia and Poland, where she writes blogs for Lingoda about everything from grammar to dating English speakers. She’s definitely better at the first one. She loves travelling and that’s the other major topic that she writes on. Laura likes pilates and cycling, but when she’s feeling lazy she can be found curled up watching Netflix. She’s currently learning Polish, and her battle with that mystifying language has given her huge empathy for anyone struggling to learn English. Find out more about her work in her portfolio.

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