9 Differences Between Rugby and the NFL

The Rugby World Cup wound up a couple of years ago in Japan with South Africa defeating Great Britain in the final. We thought it was time to clear up a few things when comparing rugby to the closest alternate in the ‘Big Four’ – American Football or the major competition, the National Football League (NFL).

Originally published in 2014. Reposted with slight changes.

Is rugby NFL without pads?

Um, no.

How many players then?

Rugby has 15 players on the field, and eight reserves which form a 23-man squad.

Unless certain circumstances such as major injuries, blood bins or concussions come into effect, when a starting player from the run on XV leaves, he or she will not come back.

A reserve does not have to be used.

In American Football (with abundant thanks to nfl.com for the clarifications), one 11-man team has possession of the football.

It is called the offense and it tries to advance the ball down the field and score points by crossing the goal line and getting into an area called the end zone.

Each team has 3 separate units: the offense, those players who are on the field when the team has possession of the ball; the defence, players who line up to stop the other team’s offence; and special teams that only come in on kicking situations (punts, field goals, and kick offs).

The other side (also with 11 players) is called the defence – assuming they don’t have the ball.

It tries to stop the offensive team and make it give up possession of the ball.

If the team with the ball does score or is forced to give up possession, the offensive and defensive teams switch roles (the offensive team goes on defence and the defensive team goes on offense).

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What about the pass, is it the same?


In general play (that is when the ball is passed back to the quarter back in American Football), they can throw the ball forward, kick it (although they rarely will, this often constitute a ‘team change’), or even pass it backward.

In rugby, passing it back is key, a forward pass will:

Rugby law 12.1: The outcome of a knock-on or throw forward: (a) Unintentional knock-on or throw forward. A scrum is awarded at the place of infringement.

However in rugby the player in possession can kick it, but unlike their counterparts in the NFL, this will not constitute the subbing of a specialist punter.

Rugby is played over 80 minutes over two 40 minute halves.

In the NFL, games are divided into four 15-minute quarters, separated by a 12-minute break at halftime.

There are also 2-minute breaks at the end of the first and third quarters as teams change ends of the field after every 15 minutes of play.

Tackling in rugby looks to do to general things, bring a player to the ground or hold them and keep them off the deck.

Holding a player up can force a turnover.

If a player goes to ground in rugby, it is fair game.

If the defence follow the laws – keeping their feet, taking the ball after the carrier goes to the deck and releases the ball (ideally), then they may take possession.

To see the laws of rugby via the IRB…

To see the original and revised laws of the NFL…

In the NFL, if the defence brings the ball carrier to the ground (i.e. a player is tackled when one or both of his knees touch the ground).

The play is then over.

A play also ends when a player runs out of bounds (as it does in rugby if the ball is run into touch or kicked out).

As long as you hold onto the ball in rugby, you can do whatever (within the laws of course!) you can to move the ball up the field.

In American Football, play is measured in yards (1 yard is .9144 metres) with the field 100 yards long as opposed to a 100 metre field in rugby.

The offensive team tries to get as much “yardage” as it can to try and move closer to the opponent’s end zone.

Each time the offense gets the ball, it has four downs, or chances, in which to gain 10 yards.

If the offensive team successfully moves the ball 10 or more yards, it earns a first down, and another set of four downs.

In rugby, a try is worth five points, a conversion two – and a penalty or drop goal is worth three points.

In American football, a touchdown (roughly equivalent to a try) is worth six points.

An extra point (or a rugby style conversion) can be earned, but two points can be earned if the offensive team can essentially score another touchdown.

A field goal, which a team can opt for if they cannot score a touchdown, is worth three points and can be attempted from anywhere on the field on any down, but generally are kicked from inside the defence’s 45-yard line on fourth down.

For a field goal to be “good”, the placekicker (or field goal kicker) must kick the ball through the goal-post uprights and over the crossbar.

Unlike a drop goal in rugby, in the NFL a specialist kicker will come onto the field.

The NFL season feature 256 games which are played out over a seventeen week schedule.

Each of the league’s 32 teams play a 16-game schedule with one bye week for each side scheduled between weeks’ four and twelve – with a wildcard round, a divisional round, conference championships and of course the Super Bowl rounding out the season.

The ‘Pro Bowl’ is the NFL’s all-star game.

Rugby has domestic and Test seasons.

Tier one sides (the likes of the All Blacks, Springboks, Wallabies and European countries such as France, Ireland and the British Isles) play what is typically a 12 to 15 Test (match) calendar year.

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