What’s The Difference Between Rugby and American Football?

Find out the key differences between Rugby and American football here. Learn how the sports compare at the elite level of the game.

One of the great age-old debates centers around rugby vs American Football. Newcomers to both sports can often lead to questions surrounding the different between rugby and American Football. 

However, there a number of factors that is different between the elite sports, meaning that there are a number of reasons why there haven’t been more cross-over stars across both.

OVAL3 shows you below the key differences and similarities between the two great sports, as we pit American Football vs rugby. 


There are few sports that can compare in terms of global popularity than American Football and rugby. The latter has a biggest scale of popularity in terms of worldwide audience, with fans tuning into watch domestic action in nations such as France's Top 14, New Zealand, United Kingdom and Ireland. However, American Football is one of the fastest growing sports in the world, with the NFL brand bringing the product to millions of fans across the world. 

The competition is the top tier of football in the world, and as such, it is one of the most-watched sporting competitions on the planet. However, there are key differences between the two spots, such as the pitch dimensions, rules, and point scoring. You can find out more about the difference between rugby and American football here. 

Historical Background

One of the key differences between rugby and American football is the early history of both sports. Rugby Union was formed in the first half of the 19th century, with the game featuring 15 players on each side first played in the United Kingdom. The first laws of the game were established in 1845 by students attending Rugby School, before the governing body of the International Rugby Board was established in 1886. 

A key moment in the history of rugby came in 1863, as Blackheath FC left the Football Association before splitting rugby into two codes of union and league in 1895. Professional rugby union was established in 1995 following the lifting of restrictions revolving payment of players. This ensured that the top players in the world could be paid as professionals for the first time in history. 

In contrast, American Football was evolved in the United States following on from the success achieved by soccer and rugby. Some rules from both sports were adopted in the early history of football, with the first match played between Rutgers and Princeton in November 1969. The most significant rule changes in the sport came in 1880, as Walter Camp established a number of the key rules that we see in the sport in this modern day, including the snap, eleven-player teams, and the concept of downs. Further rule changes soon followed, which included the legalization of the forward pass. 

American Football is the most significant sport in the United States, with the over one million high-school students playing the game. Matches on the NFL and college schedules are also watched by millions across the nation, with the standout match on the schedule coming in the form of the Super Bowl, which is one of the most culturally important sporting fixtures on the American schedule. 

Playing Field and Dimensions

A big different between rugby and American Football that all fans should be aware of is the playing field. A rugby pitch is significantly bigger than an American Football field, with the rugby field being longer and wider.

American Football fields are the same dimension regardless of whether it is an NFL or high school match. The standard American Football field is 100 yards long, and 53 yards wide.

Meanwhile, a rugby field can be between 122 and 135 yards long, and between 74 and 76 yards wide. The end goals where the vast majority of points are scored are also different.

We found during this rugby vs American football study that the latter’s end zone is ten yards long, while a rugby field has an end zone of between 5.5 and 24 yards on each side. 

Players and Positions

Another key difference between rugby and American Football is the number of players that are on the field. In rugby, the match consists of two teams of 15 players, with between seven or eight substitutes on the bench. The players on the rugby field are divided into eight forwards and seven backs. 

Forwards will be tasked with gaining their team with possession of the ball and forcing a turnover in possession. Meanwhile, backs are made up for half-backs, three-quarters, and full-backs. Backs are tasked with scoring the important points for their teams, and players in this position are generally smaller and faster than the forwards. 

In contrast when assessing rugby vs football, an American Football team is made up of just eleven players on each team. The offensive unit on the squad is tasked with getting the football down the field of play, with the main aim being to score a touchdown. Players in the offensive unit include the quarterback, fullback, and halfback. 

Meanwhile, the defensive unit, which is made up by defensive line and defensive ends, will be asked to tackle opposing players and forcing a turnover in possession. American Football teams will also have a special teams unit, which is responsible for kicking plays, meaning that they are tasked with field goal attempts, kick offs and punts. 

Equipment and Gear

Another key difference between rugby and American Football is the equipment and gear that is used. The biggest difference between the two sports is the fact that rugby players don’t wear major protective equipment like stars in American Football do. Rugby players will wear a shirt, as well as shock, socks and boots. The ball is an oval and is made up of four panels. 

The regulations state that the ball must be between 280 and 300 mm in length, between 740 and 770 mm in circumference, and between 580 and 620 mm in width. Protective equipment is strictly regulated, with the most common form of equipment coming in the forms of mouthguards, which are worn by almost all players. Headgear can also be worn, while shin guards and also optional. 

American Football players wear a lot more protective equipment when they are on the field, including the obvious shoulder pads that are worn by all players regardless of the position that they play. Meanwhile, stars in the sport will also wear helmets, elbow pads, hip paddings, and cleats. 

The ball is one of few similarities between Rugby vs American Football. In football, the ball must be inflated to between 12.5 and 13.5 pounds per square inch. The ball in professional competitions will be between 11 and 11 ¼ inches long, and the long circumference will be between 28 and 28.5 inches.

Rules and Gameplay

Rugby is a sport played between two teams of 15 players. The main aim of the game is to score more points than their rivals. Points can be scored in a variety of different ways in rugby, with grounding the ball in the end zone being the main aim, as this will score a try. Five points are awarded for a try, with the attacking team then having the opportunity to score two further points via a conversion. Penalty kicks and drop goals can also be key difference makers in tight matches, with both scoring three points, respectively. 

The game will kick off following a coin toss, with the start seeing the team kick the ball to the opposing side. Each half in rugby is made up by 40 minutes, with a 15 minute break in between. A key difference between rugby and American Football is the fact that passes can’t be made going forward, as the ball needs to move backwards when passing to a player on the same team in rugby. 

Like in rugby, the winning team in American Football is the side that has scored the most points at the final whistle. Players are able to score points in a number of different ways. The most valuable is a touchdown, which will see an attacking player enter the opposing side’s red zone. This scores six points. An extra point can then be added via a kicking conversion. 

A field goal can also be scored by teams, as a successful kick is worth three points. A safety can also be scored when the ball carrier is tackled in their own end zone, and this will see two points awarded. An American Football match lasts for 60 minutes, with four quarters of 15 minutes being played. There is a half time break after the first two quarters, while matches in the NFL typically last an average of three hours due to stoppages throughout the match.

Physicality and Safety

Both rugby and American Football are very intense sports, meaning that injuries are a concern for governing bodies. However, that is something that both sports are looking to limit in this modern day. Huge strides have been made to improve player welfare across both, with rugby teams able to make temporary substitutions to enable injured players to assessed fully. 

This includes players that are bleeding or concussed. In 2016, it was announced by World Rugby that players that were forced off due to foul play wouldn’t count against the number of substitutions that teams are able to use. 

American Football is a full-contact sport, and injuries are hugely common. The protective equipment is worn to reduce the risk of injury, but knee injuries remain common. 

However, concussions are among the biggest concerns in the sport, with CTE and mental health issues among the big issues. However, major steps have been made to limit long-lasting effects, with a number of programmes introduced to reduce the number of helmet-to-helmet hits. 

Global Popularity and Cultural Impact

Rugby and American Football are two of the most followed sports in the world. American Football is considerably the most popular sport in North America, with millions watching the NFL action on a regular basis. College games are also watched by huge capacity crowds throughout the season. However, few sporting events on the calendar come close to the scale of the Super Bowl. 

The Championship game attracts a global audience, as the two leading sides in the NFL lock horns. It is a huge event on the calendar, with many tuning in to watch the Half Time Show, which is typically headlined by one of the biggest names in music. The sport is becoming more popular around the world too, with regular season games in the NFL being played in European nations such as England and Germany. 

But, unlike American Football, a key difference between rugby and American Football is the fact that rugby is a global sport, played by millions across the planet. It isn’t just limited to one nation, with rugby being played domestically in New Zealand, France, Australia, South Africa, and the United Kingdom. 

The World Cup is one of the most popular events on the calendar, with millions tuning into watch the action every four years. Other major international tournaments include the Six Nations, which is staged every two years. 


There is a number of differences between rugby and American Football, but both remain among the leading sports on the planet. Both have a massive audience, with new players often signing up to get involved. Safety measures have been improved across both sports in recent years, meaning that the welfare of players is taken very seriously.

It is likely that both sports will continue to experience huge success over the coming generations, as new fans are enticed by the action on the field. 

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