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Rugby vs American Football: What’s the Difference?

rugby scrum different to american football

Two powerhouse sports with global followings, passionate fans, and an oval ball at the centre of it all. Off the back of the most watched Super Bowl ever (the most watched US TV broadcast since the 1969 moon landing!), we look at Rugby vs American Football – what’s the difference and what are the similarities.

Similar origins: how American Football split from Rugby

First question to tackle: are American football and Rugby the same game? No! But, with one’s origin in the other (and remarkably similar starts in schools), there are similarities that have changed over time.

Rugby was derived from football/soccer in England in 1823 when, in the town of Rugby, William Webb Ellis picked up the ball during a game of football and ran towards the goal line (so the legend goes).

The British sports of soccer and Rugby were widely played in the US and played in schools; in 1862 – with the same Webb-Ellis’ ingenuity – schoolboy Gerrit Smith Miller and his pals invented a hybrid game (“The Boston Game”) that combined soccer’s goal-kicking with Rugby’s running with the ball. They formed a club, “The Oneidas”, ran tournaments on Boston Common, and when members enrolled in Harvard, the rules were used as a foundation for a codified sport – American Football.

What’s the difference between Rugby and American football?

Both Rugby and American football showcase incredible athleticism and strategy on the field. With similar origins, that’s almost where the similarities end: the ball is oval but is different; the field size and goals are different; they boast different gameplay styles and are immersed in their own cultures.

rugby vs american football

Set up: balls, pitches and forming a team

A Rugby pitch is bigger than an American football pitch and the painted lines are also different. The American “gridiron” marks out every 10 yards, whereas a Rugby fields has lines in each half to mark 22 metres, and 10 metres from the centre.

A Rugby ball is rounder than an American football, which has pointier ends and stitching (“laces”) on the leather for grip.

For your American football team, you’ll need 11 players; for Rugby, you’ll need 15 (unless you are playing a 7-a-side version, called Rugby Sevens which has been an Olympic Sport since 2016.


The same basic idea is behind both games – to move the ball into your opponent’s end zone to score points. In Rugby this is a try, in American football this is a touchdown.

In Rugby, you score points by grounding the ball over the try line. There has to be downward pressure on the ball. You can score additional points with conversion kicks and drop-goals. Scoring in American football primarily involves touchdowns, whereby any part of the ball should be in the touch zone. Additional points can be awarded from field goals and extra points.

How do I know if I’m watching Rugby or American football?

If you’re watching a game of Rugby, the players will be wearing minimal protective gear – always a mouthguard, sometimes a scrum cap. American football players wear extensive protective gear, including helmets, shoulder pads, thigh pads, and more.

In both codes, you’ll see players tackling one another. In Rugby, this involves wrapping the arms around the opponent’s waist and bringing them to the ground. The absence of protective padding and helmets requires players to rely on proper, low technique and positioning to mitigate the risk of injury. The emphasis on hard hits and forceful collisions is a defining aspect of American Football.

A rule of Rugby is that the ball must be passed backwards; American footballs can be passed in any direction. When a Rugby player is tackled, they must release the ball whereas a tackled player in gridiron is the end of the play. You’ll also know you’re watching a Rugby game if you see scrums, lineouts, and lining up of the ball for conversions.

American football games have a stop-start structure, with set plays and strategic formations. In American football a team has four attempts to make 10 yards. The game pauses frequently between plays / after tackles, allowing teams to regroup and plan their next moves. In Rugby, you’ll see a fast-paced continuous game with continuous tackles and phases.

scoring in rugby ball on ground
To score in rugby, the ball must be grounded over the tryline

Enjoying the games: participation and fans

Rugby enjoys significant popularity worldwide, with strong followings in Australia, Argentina, France, Ireland, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, South Africa, and the UK. Teams from the USA continually make waves on the Rugby Sevens circuit and are a crowd-favourite – and popularity of Rugby within America itself is growing year on year.

The Rugby World Cup continues to be embraced by more fans every four years and is the third biggest athletic competition in the world after the FIFA World Cup and the Olympics in terms of audience reach and sponsorship. What will be very interesting is how the USA embraces Rugby over the next decade, as they prepare to host the 2031 Rugby World Cup.

American Football, by its nature, is predominantly a national sport but of course there are fans globally. Along with other American sports of baseball, basketball and hockey, American football continues to dominate in the United States, where it is a cultural phenomenon and a multibillion-dollar industry. With huge investment and fandom at national and college levels, and the cultural and economic impact of the Super Bowl (and the Half Time Show… and the commercial breaks!) is a force to be reckoned with.

To summarise: Rugby vs American Football

Rugby and American football share certain foundational elements, such as their origins in Rugby-like games and a focus on scoring points, but exhibit distinct gameplay styles, equipment requirements, and cultural contexts.

Whether one is drawn to the continuous action and physicality of Rugby or the strategic complexity and spectacle of American football, each sport offers its own unique experiences and challenges for players and fans. Understanding both and appreciating the rich diversity of sports in their cultural contexts is always exciting to us, and we encourage anyone to try as many sports in their life as they can!

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