Rugby and American football are similar sports in nature but are played using rules that are quite different from each other. In both sports, two competing teams of players try to advance an inflated, oblong ball down the field and across the opposing team's goal line or kick it through goalposts. The team that is not in possession of the ball tries to prevent the other team from scoring by tackling the player who has the ball or taking the ball away. Among the main differences between the sports are the number of players in the game, the field and equipment used, how the action stops and starts, how the ball can be advanced and the number of points awarded for various ways of scoring.
Number of Players
In a standard football game, there are 11 players on the field at a time for each team. The number of players on the field in rugby depends on the type being played. The two main versions are rugby union, in which there are 15 players on the field for each team, and rugby league, in which there are 13. In both sports, there also are variations that use fewer players, such as eight-man football and rugby sevens, which uses seven players for each team.
Most players at the highest levels of American football play only offense or defense. When a team gains or loses possession of the ball, 11 new players typically will replace those who had been playing. One or more players also can be substituted into the game at any time between plays. There is no limit on the number of substitutions that can be made during a game, so some players are specialists who excel at one particular task.
In rugby, the same players remain on the field no matter which team has possession of the ball. This means that most players must be versatile enough to play well on both offense and defense. Teams are allowed a limited number of substitutions per game, so some players must play the entire game.
The fields used in both sports are similar in appearance but use different measurements. Both fields are rectangular, with goalposts at each end and white lines marking certain parts of the field. Rugby fields are slightly longer from one goal line to the other — 328.1 feet (100 m), compared with 300 feet (91.44 m) in football — and much wider.
The goalposts are about the same size, although they are wider at some lower levels of American football. Rugby goalposts are H-shaped, with a crossbar 9.8 feet (3 m) off the ground and the uprights 18.4 feet (5.6 m) apart. Football goalposts can be H-shaped but often have a single post in the middle on the bottom, with the two uprights rising from the crossbar. The crossbar is 10 feet (3.05 m) off the ground, and the uprights are either 18.5 feet (5.64 m) or 23.33 (7.11 m) apart. In rugby, the goalposts are on each goal line, or try-line, but in football, they are at the back of each end zone.
Both sports use different sizes of inflated, oblong balls, depending on the version being played and the age of the players. Full-size balls in both sports are roughly 11 inches (27.94 cm) long, are 21 to 24 inches (53.3 to 61 cm) around at their widest parts and weigh 14 to 16 ounces (397 to 454 g), with some variation from one version of each sport to another. American footballs are more pointed at each end, and rugby balls are a little bigger around in the middle. The balls in both sports are often made of synthetic material, but at the higher levels of American football, genuine leather balls are used.
One significant difference for the players is the equipment that is worn during games. American football players wear hard helmets with face masks, firm shoulder pads and usually padding on their knees, thighs, hips and some other areas. Rugby players typically wear little or no padding. Some wear soft padding to protect their ears or shoulders and collarbones, but wearing hard protective gear is not allowed.
Standard rugby games consist of two 40-minute halves, for a total of 80 minutes. Full-length American football games consist of four 15-minute quarters, for a total of 60 minutes. At lower levels of both sports, such as games for youths, and in some other versions, shorter games might be played.
In American football, the clock often stops, such as when a forward pass is not caught by a player, when a team scores, when possession changes and in certain instances when the ball goes out of bounds. The clock keeps running in rugby, although time can be added to make up for time lost during certain stoppages in play, such as when a player is injured. This means that a full-length game is often a few minutes longer than 80 minutes. In both sports, overtime might be played if the score is tied at the end of regulation.
One significant difference between the sports is the way that the action takes place. In football, the game is a series of plays — short bursts of action, each followed by both teams regrouping to prepare for and set up the next play. The action stops for shorter periods of time in rugby, because after a player is tackled, the ball is quickly rolled to a teammate, and play resumes.
Advancing the Ball
Players in both sports try to advance the ball across the other team's goal line. This is often done by carrying it. Football players can pass the ball to a teammate and are allowed to pass the ball forward if the passer is behind the point on the field where that play began. Rugby players also can pass the ball, but can never pass it forward — only backward or sideways.
Kicking the ball to a teammate or even oneself is allowed in rugby. For example, a player who is running with the ball can kick it forward, then pick it up and continue running with it. In football, kicking is allowed only under certain circumstances, and it usually results in the opposing team taking possession of the ball.
The two main ways of scoring in both sports are by advancing the ball across the other team's goal line and by kicking the ball through the goalposts. Different numbers of points are scored for doing these, depending on how they are done or the situation in the game. American football has one additional way of scoring, called a safety, which involves a team being stopped in its own end zone or losing possession of the ball and having the ball go out of its end zone.
On a normal play in football, carrying the ball across the opponent's goal line or catching it in the end zone is a touchdown, which is worth six points. A similar play in rugby is called a try, which occurs when the ball is touched to the ground in the opposing team's in-goal area. A try is worth five points in rugby union and four points in rugby league.
After a touchdown or a try, the scoring team gets a chance to score additional points. In rugby, this is called a conversion, and two points are scored if the ball is kicked over the crossbar of the goalposts. There are several names for this type of play in football — such as an extra point, point after touchdown and two-point conversion — and it is worth one or two points, depending on whether the ball was kicked through the goalposts or advanced into the end zone by either a run or pass. A run or pass usually is worth two points and a kick worth one, but this is sometimes reversed in youth leagues.
Both sports also award points for other kicks that go over the crossbar and through the goalposts. In football, these are called field goals and are worth three points. There are two other types of scoring kicks in rugby — penalty kicks and drop goals. Both types are worth three points in rugby union. In rugby league, a penalty kick is worth two points, and a drop goal is worth one.
There are many other differences between these sports. For example, blocking an opposing player is an essential part of football. In rugby, however, the only player who can be impeded or interfered with is the player who has the ball. Some of the other differences include the limits on the number of opportunities a team gets to advance the ball, the existence of some artificial turf fields in football and the terminology used, such as the names of positions. Also, American football is played mostly in North America, and rugby is a more international sport.