Rugby vs. Football: The 4 Main Differences

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I’ll preface this article by saying that I haven’t played American Football. Not at high-school or College, not even pickup. I’ve watched the game enthusiastically for the past few years though. I even placed as high as 12th in a 16 team Fantasy league, so I clearly have the credentials to comment. This article is not meant to show that Rugby is tougher than American Football. Arguments could easily be found to support one game’s toughness over the other.

Comparing rugby and American Football

Rather than talk about the size of the fields in rugby and American football (or the shape of the ball or the scoring system) I’m going to look at what I consider the 4 main differences between how rugby and American football games are played. I’ll examine how seemingly superficial differences ripple down to have a major influence on game play and tactics. Let’s start with the most obvious difference of all.


On the surface

This is the big one. American Football’s forward pass is the fastest way to gain territory and score points. Recent rule changes have further enforced this, as teams move away from the run-heavy offense in favor of passing plays and play action. In American Football, the quarterback has the sole responsibility to get the ball down field with his arm. This specialization means the offense revolves around protecting the quarterback until his receivers can get open for a pass. There is a whole infrastructure developed in American Football to do this. Blocking, running routes and a run threat are all aimed at buying the quarterback time in the pocket to complete a pass.

In rugby, no player is allowed to pass or kick the ball to a team mate who is down field. This means that gaining territory is difficult. You need to go backwards in order to go forwards. A rugby team must effectively break the opponent’s defensive line in order to get down towards the other end of the field. In football, you try to exploit a team’s vertical weakness. In rugby, you aim to exploit the opponent’s lateral weakness. A lot of people make the comparison between the American Football QB and the Rugby Fly-half (#10). They’re both key positional players who control the game with their pass. But a better comparison is between the QB and the Rugby half-back (#9). The half-back in rugby is the only player who is given a level of protection within the laws to make a pass. The difference being that the Football QB’s pass exploits vertical space in the defense while the Rugby half-back’s pass exploits lateral space.

Everyone is lateral

Rugby doesn’t allow for forward passes so no player is specialized in the skill of passing. We talked in the previous paragraph about lateral space across the rugby field. Exploiting a lateral weakness in your opponent’s defensive line is how a rugby team breaks the gain line and scores points. But in order to exploit lateral spaces, every rugby player must be able to catch and throw a lateral pass. Doing this while running at full speed is challenging. You’ll notice from watching a game of rugby that hundreds of passes are thrown by both sides. Rugby players practice catching and passing to the Nth degree. At any given moment, a player might need to exploit an opportunity in the defensive line by throwing a lateral pass. As a football player transitioning to rugby, passing laterally at speed will be the first skill you need to learn. Catching will be a close second.

No easy yards

Not having a forward pass means making ground is tough. The easiest way for an American Football player to think about the offense in rugby is to simply imagine that there is no QB in a game of football. Instead, you have a team of 15 running backs and you’re facing 15 defensive ends. What do you do? The defense is coming forward at you and taking a knee isn’t an option. This is what it feels like as a rugby player who is attacking the defensive line. As the half-back passes the ball, the defense moves forward and the attack is immediately under pressure. Just getting back to the gain-line (similar to the line of scrimmage in Football) is hard enough, but making 20m downfield is near-impossible without exploiting lateral space.

Stretching the defense

I’ve painted a deliberately sad picture here of what it means to be attacking in rugby. But if you’re still imagining 15 D-Ends running at you, don’t stress. In rugby, you can beat them all by throwing a couple of good lateral passes. Imagine you’re the running back who is about to be swarmed by tacklers. Rather than trucking it ahead, you can throw a lateral pass to a teammate and within a few seconds the ball is 40m across the field away from where you were tackled. Because anyone on the offense might throw a lateral pass at any time, the defensive team must respect that this is possible and cover all possible receivers. This creates a flat line of defenders that stretches across the field from sideline to sideline. They can’t all rush up at any single attacker for fear that the attacker will throw a lateral pass and they’ll be caught out of position.

Where to attack

The attacking strategy in rugby is to exploit the defensive line at points of weakness. This can be where two players are spaced too far apart (a ‘Gap’), where there’s an individual player weakness (a ‘Mismatch’) or where your team has more players to attack than there are defenders in the line (an ‘Overlap’). Offensive plays in rugby are designed to manipulate the defensive line and create Gaps, Mismatches and Overlaps. And ideally all three at the same time through the use of a lateral pass.

To sum up the forward pass

Allowing forward passes means that American Football is a vertically-focused game. At the same time, passing backwards means that Rugby is a horizontally-focused game. For American football players, understanding this key difference will help you get your bearings on the field. In Football, you’re trying to stretch the defense downfield and exploit weakness underneath or over the top. In rugby, you’ll be trying to stretch the defense wide and then exploit gaps through the middle or overlaps on the outside of the defensive line.


On the surface

In terms of game play American Football is designed around equality. That might sound strange at first, but let me explain. American Football has a series of rules that actually create less competition than many other sports and rugby in particular. To name just a few:

  • If you’re tackled on the field, the play clock stops for 35 seconds (benefits the offense)
  • If you’re tackled out of bounds, you keep the ball (benefits the offense)
  • If you take a knee, you keep the ball (benefits the offense)
  • Once tackled, you simply move to the next scrimmage (benefits the offense)
  • If you need to stop, you can take a timeout (benefits both teams)
  • After 4 plays without forward progress, the other team gets the ball (benefits the defense)

This last point is important enough to warrant further examination. ‘3 and Outs’ make American Football what I would call a ‘polite’ sport compared to rugby. In rugby, the referee will never tell you, “look, you’ve had 4 goes and you couldn’t get 10 meters so we’ll give them the ball now.”

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Play limits in American Football put an emphasis on yards per play. Over 5 is good, less than 3 is ordinary. Without play limits, the attacking team in rugby isn’t focused on forward progress. Remember from point #1 in this article that rugby is a horizontal game. Obviously its HIGHLY preferable to be going forward, but if you’re tackled for a loss, you can continue attacking in rugby as long as you can maintain possession.

Winning possession

Possession is critical in both sports. You’re much more likely to score points with the ball than without it. For the defensive team in American Football, the easiest way to win possession is by stopping the offense from making 10 yards. There are fumbles and interceptions as well, but three and out is what you’re really aiming for. Because rugby doesn’t have play limits, the defense in rugby can’t win possession by stopping forward progress.

ASIDE: Stopping forward progress and forcing a kick from the attack can be an effective strategy in rugby. However, there is no law that requires the team to hand over possession if they aren’t going forward. 

Aim of the tackle

With just 10 yards to protect, American Football defenders are tackling to stop forward progress. This is why American Football tackles have so much venom. You don’t need to put the guy on the ground and hold him there, you just need to knock him backwards. The best way to do that is with a damn big impact. The reason you see such impressive hits in Football relative to rugby is that rugby tackles are designed to do something else entirely.

Stopping forward progress is just one aim of a rugby tackle, so there must be others, right? The other objective of the rugby tackle is to give the defense the opportunity to win possession. As we’ll discuss in point #3, rugby has no 35 second break when a player is tackled. So when a tackle occurs, both teams are allowed to compete physically for the ball. This creates what we call a ‘Ruck’, where players from both teams collide over the ball in an effort to win possession for their team. There are strategies the offense can employ to control the ruck situation and maintain possession. But theoretically, a tackle in rugby creates a 50/50 battle for the ball that either team can win. Defenders in rugby are aiming to get the opponent on the ground as fast as possible so their team can try to win the ball at the Ruck.

Possession and pressure

In most sports, a team can dominate the game by starving the opposition of possession. This happens in American Football when you have a team that plays with a run-heavy offense and just wears the clock down. You can see the effect this has on the defense in Football, the Defensive Ends can’t put the same level of pressure on the QB and the Linebackers start to move a bit slower in coverage. It’s the same or similar in rugby, but worse.

Not having a limit on the number of consecutive plays you can run in rugby allows the team in possession to put enormous pressure on the defense. Some teams have been known to run 20-30 consecutive plays when in possession. This means the defense needs to be continuously tackling, covering the whole field and communicating adjustments in their defensive line. This process takes its toll on even the best defensive players.

What makes rugby more challenging still is that if the defense wins possession, those same defenders need to become attackers. Imagine your team has just made 20 consecutive tackles and now needs to turn around and formulate an attack. Usually the team that wins possession under these circumstances will kick for the sideline and just try to slow the game down and take a break at the lineout.

To sum up no play limits

Because there are no play limits in Rugby, the offense is able to starve the defense of possession, giving them a better chance to score points and win the game. To combat this, the defense aims to make low tackles that create a contest for the ball at each tackle situation or ‘Ruck’. Rucks give the defense an opportunity to win possession or at least slow down the play and give them time to organize the defensive line.


On the surface

The most crucial difference between rugby and American football occurs when a player is tackled. In American Football, the play is whistled dead and there’s a 35 second break for both teams to re-group. In Rugby, the play continues. This creates a unique set of circumstances where the team in possession is forced to produce the ball and run another play. No break. No rest. No play calls from the touchline. No time to get organized. This continuity makes rugby a more fluid game than American Football but there are a number of other situations that this also creates.

Constant contest

Once a player is tackled, rugby becomes a race to secure possession. Players from the ball carrier’s team will sprint to the tackle to protect the ball so that the half-back can throw a lateral pass. The tackle situation also creates the opportunity for the defense to win possession. This makes getting to the tackled player first the #1 task for both teams once a tackle occurs. This ‘Race to the Ruck’ forces players in all positions to think about supporting their teammates even before a tackle occurs. At no point is it ok for one guy to go “on his own”. Rugby players must anticipate the tackle situation, communicate with their teammates and support the ball carrier as he goes to ground.

The feeling this creates for you as a player is one of constant contest. Even if you don’t have the ball you still have a role in the attack. Players don’t have any time to relax in rugby. The tackle is just the start of the contest, not the end. Hesitate for a second and the ball is taken away and screaming downfield in the opposite direction.

Playing off the ball

Since your teammates in rugby might be tackled at any point you’ll get a sense when you’re playing that you are always in the game. Even if you don’t personally have the ball, supporting your teammates is crucial to the success of the team. It’s not enough to stand and watch. You need to protect the ruck or start calling the next play immediately. We call all of the things that a rugby player might do when they’re not in possession, “off the ball” activities. The small technical skills that can dramatically improve your game are all things you can do “off the ball”. They include small talk with your teammates, working hard to get in position early and running the correct support lines.

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Less influence from coaches

Coaches in North American sports have a huge influence during games. This goes for Hockey, Baseball, Basketball and yes American Football. But because we don’t have 35 seconds between plays or TV timeouts in rugby, the role of the coach is dramatically reduced. They can’t use a playbook to call out real-time instructions to their players or make adjustments to their strategy. This lack of in-game coaching puts more emphasis on the team’s captain and the senior players. While the coaching staff will have a vision for how they want the team to play, its the role of the senior players to implement that strategy on the field. This can be very difficult. Remember, they’re not standing with a clipboard, they’re making tackles and kicks and running the ball just like everyone else. Rugby forces everyone on the team to think on their feet, to adjust their style of play to the weather conditions, game circumstances and the team’s on-field assets. The senior players on a rugby team are constantly evaluating the game situation and communicating strategy changes to their teammates. Sounds like a lot of work? It is.

Aerobic fitness

As a football player, you’ve probably become used to dozens of short anaerobic bursts. Rugby still requires these bursts, but you’ll also need to be moving constantly for 80 minutes in a number of functional ways. Running is just the start. You’ll be going forward, backward and laterally on command and without rest. You’ll need to accelerate quickly, stop on a dime and do about 100 burpees a game. One of the most difficult parts of rugby, for beginners at least, is just getting up off the ground over and over again.

Some players will be involved in a tackle or ruck situation at least once a minute during the game. That’s like a Burpee a minute for an hour and a half. Because the game is continuous, you need to be able to make a tackle, jump to your feet, skip 5 meters so you’re onside and then sprint up in defense again. All of those functional movements require rugby players to have what we commonly refer to as a “big motor”. Players with big motors do crazy rugby-specific cardio training and will often be the best players on the team as they’re able to continue thinking when they’re tired. For more on this checkout the great eBook on rugby conditioning available through our store.

Lower risk plays

You’ll notice in American football that the offense is basically allowed to make certain mistakes. If the QB throws a pass that hits the ground, the play is whistled dead and the offense gets another crack. Same goes for a wild pass that goes out of the field of play. (side note, did you know that American Football is the only game in the world where you can run the ball over the sideline yourself and still retain possession?). In rugby, if the ball hits the ground, the play continues. And if you throw a pass out of the field, the other team gets it. So even though the incentive might be the same for a rugby player or a QB to throw a pass, the rugby player is more likely not to. Many ruggers will refer to this as not ‘pushing the pass’, but more generally this relates to making the correct (and probably the safest) decision you can on the field.

To sum up no time between plays

While American Football involves more intense bursts of energy and action, Rugby is more fluid.Rugby newcomers will probably be shocked by just how difficult it is to simply keep getting up off the ground and back into the defensive line. The American Football players I’ve spoken to about this say that this is one of the reasons they enjoy Rugby over American Football. There’s less waiting around, which makes for a more enjoyable playing experience.


On the surface

Every position player in rugby is both highly specialized and adaptable. Though no two players’ skill sets will overlap exactly, there are a core number of skills that all rugby players require. These include catching and passing, tackling, contesting rucks and supporting teammates in ruck situations. I could go on but you get the gist. The point here is that the average rugby player needs to be able to do many different things very well.

Everyone plays both ways

Last year the NFL world was shocked when JJ Watt took the field for some offensive snaps in a couple of Texans games. For a rugby player, this wasn’t the most interesting news of the week. While NFLers specialize on either the offensive of defensive side of the ball, rugby players have to attack and defend constantly.  An NFL lineman might go their entire career without touching the ball, but every rugby player will have it at least once in a game. From what I’m told, this makes rugby considerably more enjoyable for those players who want to be involved in every play.

Nobody is sitting down

If we take a step away from the professional game for a second and think about the amateur and high-school levels of both sports, having no possession specialists creates a significant recruiting advantage for rugby. I remember going to a game of college-level Canadian Football in Vancouver where there were no less than 85 players dressed for the game. That means that even if you do get time as a starter, you’re certain not to play the full game. Rugby teams have 23 members with 15 players in the game at any one time. That’s just over 50% of positions covered by a replacement. In football, you can have as many as 55 players dressed for just 11 positions. That’s a 500% coverage rate. Football’s interchange system allows for players to be swapped in and out for individual plays. While in rugby, a replacement is permanent and that new player is there for good. The result? There are fewer players standing around wishing they were on the rugby field. That’s a good thing for the game’s development at junior levels.

Diverse skill sets for every player

Since everyone on a rugby team is playing both ways, they all need to be skilled in multiple areas. Unlike say a defensive end in football whose sole responsibility is to attack the quarterback, a flanker in rugby not only needs to tackle and compete for the ball, but also to make passing plays, support teammates in contact and organize the defensive line. As a football player making a transition to rugby, you’ll notice immediately that your skill set needs to get bigger in order to play rugby at a high level.