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American Football vs. Rugby: 14 Main Differences to Consider

American Football and Rugby have a shared history where American Football is a derivative of Rugby. Although the games are different, they share similar game concepts.  

Rugby was first started at the Rugby school in 1845. It was in a place called Rugby, Warwickshire, located in England. A pupil of the school named William Webb Ellis picked a ball during a soccer game and practically invented the sport we now know today as Rugby. 

American Football has its origins from Rugby, with some divergences from the rules of the former game. Some major changes were made to the rules of playing American Football.  

So even if the two games have a shared history, they still have many differences. 

These are 14 differences between American Football and Rugby:

1. The size of the field and its dimensions

An American Football field is rectangular in shape. The dimensions of the field are 110 x 48.8 meters squared. At the end of the field, there are goal lines that are apart 91 meters each from the field. 

Beyond each goal line, there are scoring lines which are called end zones, measuring 9.1 meters each beyond the goal lines. There are lines of hash marks that run parallel to the sidelines towards the center of the football field, and the yard lines will cross the field within every 4.6 meters. 

The goal posts are located at the back of each end zone. Initially, the goal posts were ‘H’ in shape, but in 1967, the National Football League (NFL) changed it to a fork shape design. It is also sometimes referred to as the ‘tuning fork’ design, which is made of steel pipes. 

The goal post consists of two pipes placed vertically and parallel to each other. These pipes are placed at a distance of 5.6 meters apart from one another. 

Rugby field is similar to the field of American Football, and the overall dimension of the rectangular Rugby field is 120 x 62 meters squared, being larger by only a nominal value. Each line that crosses the field marks every ten meters, where we can assume that the parallel lines that run across the field are 10 meters (11 yards) away from each other. 

The goal posts are located at the end of each field and are located at locations known as the try line. The area between the goal posts is known as the in-goal area. 

The in-goal area spreads for another six to eleven meters. The goal posts are “H” in shape which American Football also previously had but changed. Each post is 16 meters, and the posts are separated by a distance of 5.5 meters. 

In Rugby, the “tuning fork” goal posts are also provided on the condition that it has the appropriate dimensions pertaining to a Rugby game. 

2. The team members

In American Football, each team has 11 members that are on the field. But a whole American Football team will have groups of players called units, and these units are called Offensive Unit, Defensive Unit, and Special Teams Unit. 

Each of these units has parts to play, and it depends on the game regarding who would take the field. If a team is attacking, the offensive unit will be sent to the field. 

If the opposing team is defending, then the defensive unit gets sent. In other cases, if a team is kicking the ball or receiving a kick, the field belongs to the special teams unit. 

However, on the other hand, a Rugby team will only have 15 members who will all play the part of attacking and defending. There will be substitutes present for injured members, but there are only four replacements and twelve interchanges allowed in a Rugby game. 

If the interchanges and the replacements are used up, the team still has to play despite being shorthanded.  

3. Possession of the ball

When the team possesses the football, it means that the team is on the offensive. The offense team gets four ‘downs’. A down is a period of time in the game where a play is made. The offense has to make 10 yards of the field to get the next group of downs which is in fours. 

If the offense does not make it to another ten yards, the offense will lose possession of the ball. 

There are other reasons known as down ends, which can make the offense lose the ball, such as an incomplete pass. An incomplete pass can be described as an event when the ball touches the ground while passing it to a team player. 

When the ball or the player goes out of bounds, it can result in a down end too. And in rare cases, the ball may accidentally get passed on to the defense team by the offense team. This is called an interception, and the ball is turned over to the team that caught the ball.

In Rugby, there is a six-tackle rule. Initially, the tackles were for free, meaning players had access to any number of tackles in a Rugby game; however, it resulted in a particular team with possession of the ball for a long period of time. So, it was changed to a six-tackle rule. 

A tackle occurs when the carrier of the ball can be attacked by one or more players from the opposing team until the ball carrier is brought to the ground. So, after the completion of six tackles, the ball is then handed over to the opposing team. Unlike American Football, there is no way of getting additional tackles in a Rugby game. 

4. Passing the ball

In American Football, players can perform the forward pass, which is a way of passing the ball towards the direction of the offensive team, which is usually towards the goal line of the defensive team. 

In Rugby, a forward pass is illegal. Though passing the ball sideways and backward is legal in both sports.  

In American Football, the players can kick the ball in order to turn it over to the opposing team. This kick is called a punt and can be performed after three unsuccessful downs. 

In Rugby, a kick is relatively used to pass the ball. This is the only means of passing the ball forward, as forwarding passes by hand are illegal. The player that is receiving the ball through the kick, though, must be behind the ball line. 

5. Blocking

In both American Football and Rugby, the defensive team can bring down the player who is in possession of the ball to the ground. In both cases, these are either known as tackles or downs, respectively, for Rugby and American Football.  

However, in Rugby, a player can pass the ball to their team player before a tackle, to avoid using the six available tackles. 

But in American Football, instead of the passing strategy to avoid using a down, a lateral pass is used instead. A lateral pass is when the ball carrier throws the ball to a team player in a parallel direction or away from the opposing teams’ goal line. 

6. Touchdown and Try

A touchdown and a try have a similar meaning: taking the ball across the opposing team’s goal line. 

Although in Rugby, if a player is attempting a try, the player must actually touch the ball to the ground. 

Ironically, in American Football, a touchdown does not require the player to actually ‘touchdown’ the ball to the ground.

7. Field goal and Penalty goal

Instead of a touchdown, in American Football, players can attempt for a field goal instead. This is done with a team member holding the ball, and another player who is attempting the goal must kick the ball towards the goal line and through the goal posts. 

In Rugby, the penalty goal is similar to the field goal, but it has just one point and is less common. For a player to attempt a penalty goal, the player must perform a drop kick. A drop kick involves the player dropping the ball and kicking it when the ball bounces off the ground. 

8. Blocks

In American Football, the player who is in possession of the ball may be knocked over, and the teammates can be blocked during the process as well. Other players can be blocked, provided that they are not with the tackle. 

In Rugby, only the player that is in possession of the ball can be knocked over or blocked. But if the other teammates of the ball carrier are impeded in any way, it would result in an infraction for the opposing team. Meaning that only the ball carrier will be blocked or tackled and exempts the teammates from it. 

9. Scoring

The scorings are also different for both sports: 

For American Football, a touchdown has 6 points, followed by a field goal for one 1 point. A field goal with no preceding touchdown has 3 points, and a touchback has two points. 

For Rugby, a try has 5 points, a penalty kick has 3 points, a drop-kick has 3 points, and a conversion has 2 points. 

10. Uniforms

American Football players wear a uniform consisting of a helmet, shoulder pads, a jersey, thigh pads, knee pads, and cleats. 

Rugby players wear a jersey, cleats, and Rugby shorts. Most players opt to wear mouth guards for protection, and forward players wear scrum caps to protect the ears. 

11. Protection

The protection used by the players in American Football is mandatory. The protection is made of aluminum and plastic. The helmets have air-filled pockets to protect the head from injuries. The size of the helmet can be adjusted by filling in more air or releasing air. 

The protective pads are worn on the shoulders, knees, thighs, and hips. This helps prevent the players from injury upon impact when they are tackled down or when they fall. 

When it comes to Rugby, the protection is not mandatory and is meager compared to American Football. Obviously, mouth guards and scrum caps are worn. But some players opt for some additional protective pads for the knees, shoulder, and shin. 

12. Popularity of the game

American Football is very popular in the United States of America and is also played in some parts of the world, or at least some derivative of the game is played. But, Rugby has a larger geographical spread, keeping in mind that Rugby was invented first. 

Rugby is very popular in many European countries, which include Wales, England, France, Scotland, and Ireland. It is also popular in non-European countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, and South Africa. 

American Football is mainly for American audiences, with the NFL as an exclusive event for the Americans. But Rugby is more of a global sport with a world cup organized every four years. Countries from all over the world can get to participate in it, making it an international spectacle. 

13. Salaries of professional players

The salaries of the professional players from both sports are like comparing bread and steak. 

A professional Rugby player’s annual salary is usually in the low six figures. On the other hand, a professional NFL player can earn, on average, more than a million per year, and that is not counting the endorsements that these professional NFL players are known to participate in.  

14. Timing of the game

An American Football game will have four 15 minutes quarters. After the half-quarter, there will be a half-time of 12 minutes. There is also a 2-minute break between every quarter. 

Whereas, for a Rugby game, there are two intervals of 40 minutes of game time. After every 40 minutes passes, there will be a half-time of ten minutes. The clock will rarely stop in a Rugby game unless it is for serious injuries, while the clock will frequently stop in an American Football game. 


Clearly, American Football and Rugby are two sports that have their own peculiarities. There are a lot of things that make the two games differ from one another. Because of these differences, it also results in different types of fans around the world. Nevertheless, the loyalty of fans for each sport is second to none, and you won’t convince either side that the other is superior.