American football and rugby, what’s the difference?

With so many rugby players from Great Britain and Australia recently grabbing NFL interest, it’s of value to get an idea of the differences between the two games.

The latest additions to the NFL scene were Welsh rugby star Louis Rees-Zammit who signed a contract with the Kansas City Chiefs, and English rugby player Travis Clayton who was selected by the Buffalo Bills with the 221st pick in the seventh round. of the 2024 NFL Draft.

So to get a better idea how rugby players can adapt to the North American game, let’s take a closer look.

Rugby is a physically demanding game, so when in 1869 in New Brunswick teams of the two universities wanted to play against each other, it was decided to modify the rules of the game, creating a mix between rugby and European soccer, removing the power and adding it entertainment. Thus, American football was born and became the most popular sport in the United States. Every year, nearly half of Americans watch the NFL Super Bowl, as well as people in more than 200 other countries. Such events become a magnet for sports bloggers who continually increase their ratings, buy Instagram followers, invest in advertising, and further warm up the interest of loyal fans. Both games appeared two centuries ago and still do not lose their positions. They boast dynamics, showmanship, and the art of tactics. American football and rugby are two similar sports, but with rather different rules of play.

Football field

The playing field in both sports looks the same but has different dimensions. Both fields have a rectangular shape, soccer goals at opposite ends, and white lines drawn on certain areas of the field. The game of American football is played on a longer and narrower field and is 91.44 meters. The rugby field is bigger, at 100 meters and the markings are also different. There are side, front, and center lines, which limit the goal area. As for the goal, there are no special differences.


Both American football and rugby use air-inflated oblong-shaped balls of various sizes. The size of the ball depends on the type of game and the age of the players.  Balls for American football are more pointed at the ends, while rugby balls are slightly larger in diameter and heavier. A rugby ball is made from synthetic materials. A football ball is made of natural leather that has a rough surface. This allows the ball to be held during the game.

Due to its more streamlined shape, a soccer ball has less resistance when it moves through the air. Therefore, American football players launch the ball with an overhead motion, while rugby players throw the ball backward over relatively short distances.

Number of players in the team

Compared to American football, rugby teams have more players on the field. The roles of the players are also different. In American football, each team consists of three separate units: offense, defense, and special teams and these specific roles must be strictly adhered to.

The number of players in rugby depends on the type of game. The two main types of rugby are Rugby Union, where each team has 15 players, and Rugby League, where each team has 13 players. Due to the fundamental difference in how rugby is played, each player can take on the role of striker and defender when needed.

Replacement of players

In the most significant American football games, most of the players on the team only attack or defend. When a team gains or loses the ball, play stops, and players are replaced by 11 new ones. At any time between plays, a team may substitute one or more players.

There is no limit to the number of player substitutions allowed during a game, and some players specialize in one particular task at which they excel better than others.

In rugby, the same players remain on the field, regardless of which team took possession of the ball. This means that most players need to be versatile and play equally well in both defense and offense.

Players’ equipment

Passing power in American football is on average four times greater than in rugby. Therefore, the equipment of the player is more like a hockey one. It includes breeches with knee pads,  helmets with a protective face mask, strong shoulder pads, as well as knee, shin, and thigh protection.

The form of rugby players practically does not differ from ordinary European soccer. Rugby players usually wear little or no protection. Some players use padded ear, shoulder, and collarbone pads, but hard pads are not allowed.

Game time

American football lasts four halves, fifteen minutes each. After the first and third halves, a one-minute break is given. The break after the second half is fifteen minutes. In American football, the time of the game is often stopped, for example, when a player passes the ball on a forward serve, when a goal is scored, when the possession of the ball changes, and, in certain cases, when the ball goes out of bounds.

A standard rugby game consists of two periods of 40 minutes each, and the entire game lasts 80 minutes. Play continues until an out or forward pass.  Breaks are not provided for by the rules, pauses are possible if it is necessary to provide first aid or watch a video replay to resolve a controversial issue.

Carrying the ball

In both sports, there is a difference between throwing and catching a ball. In American football, the quarterback usually throws the ball, while in rugby every player on the field throws and catches the ball.

Rugby players can pass the ball with their hands and feet, but they are not allowed to pass forward with their hands. In USA football most basic combinations are made up of passes forward with the hands but passing forward with the legs is not allowed.

In American football, a long pass can sometimes carry the game fifty to sixty yards at a time, while in rugby, the game develops more in shorter passes forward.

To sum up, spectators who prefer flashy attacks all over the field will appreciate rugby. In American football, the physical preparation and tactical component come first.  As for world popularity, American football is played mainly in the USA while rugby is more of an international sport, and broadcasts of Rugby World Cup matches break all records in ratings. During the matches, the media and opinion leaders who constantly buy real Instagram followers and create information noise on social networks, often get confused about the names of the games, as both used terms are widely used in the world. In all, there are dozens of local names for football and related sports games around the world. But this does not prevent this sport from remaining truly international, giving bright emotions and the joy of communication to people from all over the world, regardless of language, color, and beliefs.