The Difference Between Rugby & American Football | Harrod Sport

Rugby and American Football: What's the Difference?


American football originated from early versions of the English sports rugby and football, which were both played on college campuses across the US in the 1860s. American Football became truly distinct in 1880 when Walter Camp proposed changes to U.S. College Football rules, replacing the scrum with a line of scrimmage, giving the team with the ball uncontested possession.

Camp's continued innovations created the game we are familiar with today – the downs system, points and traditional formations all originated from the man known as the "Father of American Football".

Depending on which side of the Atlantic Ocean you live, you are likely to have a strong preference for one sport or the other. But as the NFL's popularity grows across the world - thanks to the International Series bringing matches to the UK, Germany and Mexico - and the 2031 Rugby World Cup prepares to bring Rugby Union to America, there are going to be lots of fans getting to grips with a new sport that feels familiar and different at the same time. So, let's find out how the modern versions of these distant cousins compare.

Differences in play...

Number of players

With a larger pitch, it is perhaps no surprise to find that Rugby Union has many more players on the field – 15 per side and a limit of seven substitutions per game. In comparison, American Football has just 11 players per team.

However, American Football squads are much larger. Teams will have an entire lineup for both defensive and offensive scenarios, totalling 22 players. Teams will also have a Special Teams unit for specialist set plays, consisting of:

  • Kicker
  • Punter
  • Holder
  • Long Snapper
  • Kick returner
  • Punt returner

NFL rules say a matchday squad is limited to 46 players from an active roster of 53.

In addition, substitutions are not used in the same way as European rugby or football fans may be familiar with. Instead, players are rotated in and out of the game with no restrictions, other than the total number on the field not exceeding 11




Possession in Rugby Union has more in common with Association Football in that there is no limit to the length of time the attacking team can possess the ball if they do not commit a foul, score, or put the ball out of play.

In this aspect, American Football shares much more with Rugby League, where possession is limited to six tackles – meaning the attacking team must score within these phases of play or the opposition will be awarded possession. Teams will often kick the ball away after the fifth tackle so that the opposition start their possession as far back as possible.

In American Football the attacking team has four attempts (downs) to move the ball 10 yards. If they succeed, they are awarded a 'fresh set' of downs and will continue to retain possession. Reaching fourth down will often see a Punter (a specialist kicker) come on to kick the ball as far back into opposition territory as possible, often meaning they will start play within 20 yards of their own goal.

If the attacking team feel they are close enough, they may instead choose to attempt a field goal on fourth down. This is a placed kick, which will earn three points if kicked between the uprights of the goal post.


An American Football match lasts 60 minutes, with the clock stopped when the ball is dead (if it goes out of play or is dropped). Each team also has the option of using three timeouts per half to stop the clock. An additional mandatory stoppage occurs at the end of each half, this is called the two-minute warning.

Managing the clock is an important tactical consideration in American Football. If you are winning, your team will try to keep the ball in play to allow as much time to run off the clock as possible. If you are losing, your attacking players will deliberately step out of bounds after receiving the ball to keep as much time on the clock as possible.

Rugby matches last for 80 minutes with the clock stopping for injuries, substitutions and video reviews. This allows the ball to be in play for as much of the allotted game time as possible. When the clock reaches 80 minutes, the game will continue until the ball next goes out of play, allowing teams the opportunity to score on the final attack of the game.


While the names differ, point scoring is similar in both sports in that a try or a touchdown is followed by the opportunity to kick a conversion (extra point).

Type of score

Rugby Union

American Football


5 points

6 points

Conversion/ Extra Point

2 points

1 point


3 points


Drop goal/ Field Goal

3 points

3 points



2 points

A noticeable difference is how a try or touchdown is scored. To score a try the ball must be grounded over the opponents' goal-line in the in-goal area, but in American Football, a touchdown does not actually require the ball to be touched down at all.

Touchdowns are scored when any part of the ball is on, above, or behind the plane of the opponents' goal line and controlled by an attacking player. If a defensive player is forced back into their own End Zone (in-goal area) the attacking team is awarded two points. This is known as a Safety.

Pitch and markings

Regulation Rugby Union pitches are limited to a maximum of 144m x 70m (157.48 yds x 76.55 yds).

American football pitches do not vary in size and all have the same precise measurements. From the back of one endzone to the other the pitch should be 120 yards x 53 1/3 yards (109.72m x 48.76m). This means that the playing area is always exactly 100 yards (91.44m) long.

Check out Harrod Sport's Guide to Rugby League Dimensions and Guide to Rugby Pitch Dimensions for more detailed information on how to accurately mark out rugby pitches.

Rugby Union markings

22-meter line: Marked 22-meters from the try line in each half. It is mainly used for 22-metre drop-outs.

Dashed lines: Marked the length of the pitch at 5m and 15m from the touchline, and across the pitch 10m either side of the halfway line. These markings are used as reference points for positioning during the match e.g., setting a scrum.

American Football markings

Hash marks: The length of the field will have each yard marked with hash lines. The officials will position the ball on the closest hash mark to restart the game after each play.

Yard lines: An unbroken line runs across the field of play, marking every five yards between the two sets of goals.

Yard numbering: With the halfway line numbered as 50, other yard line is numbered to denote 10-yard intervals. Each half will have 10-, 20-, 30- and 40-yard line number, with the halfway line marked as 50.


Goal posts

A significant difference between the sports are the goalposts. Not least because American Football goals are yellow and shaped like forks, while rugby posts are H-shaped and traditionally white.

Rugby posts are positioned at the centre of the goal lines at each end of the field, but American Football goals are located at the back of the end zone, 10 yards behind the goal line. This can be confusing for new spectators as the additional distance to goal means a 30-yard field goal is actually taken from the 20-yard line.


The ball

While the shape is similar, the ball is actually quite different in size. Rugby balls are more rounded, making them better suited to kicking as they will bounce more predictably. American footballs have a smaller circumference and are shaped with pointed ends, making them ideal to throw accurately with a single hand.

American footballs have a length of 11-11.25" (28-29 cm) and a width circumference of 21"-21.25" (53-54 cm)

World Rugby allows balls to have a length between 28-30 cm and a width circumference of (58-62 cm).


Length (cm)

Width circumference (cm)

American Football

28-29 cm

53-54 cm


28-30 cm

58-62 cm

Protective equipment

The pads and helmets of American football players are an iconic element of the game and are worn by every player regardless of their position. This protective equipment includes:

  • Helmets
  • Shoulder pads
  • Elbow pads
  • Knee pads
  • Hip and thigh pads
  • Mouth guards

In comparison, rugby players have much less protective equipment, with only the mouth guard being mandatory;

  • Skull caps
  • Mouth guards
  • Body padding

Viewers may find it strange that similar sports have such a different approach to protective equipment, but this reflects the style of contact the players experience during a game.

Rugby only allows the player with the ball to be tackled, but a key feature of American Football is 'blocking' - hitting players who do not have the ball to either get close to the quarterback or to make space for teammates to run into.


Rugby Union

Rugby League

American Football











Six tackles

Four downs minimum


Try 5, conversion 2

Try 4, conversion 2

6 Touchdown, 1 conversion

When the ball goes into touch



End of down

Time with the ball in play

39 minutes and 14 seconds

63 minutes and 20 seconds

18 minutes


Rugby World Cup

Six Nations

British and Irish Lions


Super League

Challenge Cup

World Cup

National Rugby League (NRL) Australia


IFAF World Championship




Is there rugby in America?

While it is not as high-profile as basketball, baseball or American football, rugby has been steadily gaining popularity in America.

The launch of the Major League Rugby (MLR) professional league in 2018, the growth of college rugby programs and interest from Rugby Sevens at the Olympics have all helped to raise the profile of the sport in recent years. This popularity is only expected to grow ahead of the Rugby World Cup, which will be held in America for the first time in 2031.

Is there a quarterback in rugby?

The quarterback is the key offensive player in American football as they have the final decision on which plays to run, either by throwing passes or handing the ball to running backs.

In rugby, flyhalves play a similar role, usually receiving the ball from the scrum-half and choosing how to advance the play. They also take a leading role in organising their team's attacks.

Which came first rugby or American football?

Rugby was the first to have codified rules, but only by two years. The rules of rugby were first codified in 1871, while American football rules were drawn up in 1873 by representatives of Yale, Columbia, Princeton and Rutgers Universities.

Can rugby players play in the NFL?

Multiple rugby players have moved to the NFL over the years, but few have been a huge success. This is likely due to the very specific requirements for different positions. In rugby, players need to be versatile, but in American football, players will train their specific roles from a young age.

A high-profile example is Christian Wade, who moved to the NFL in 2018 after leaving Wasps. Despite an impressive debut, he struggles to get a place in the squad and was released at the start of the 2021 season.

Other names include Gavin Hastings, Jarryd Hayne and David Tukatahi Dixon – who was an exception, playing 13 years in the NFL.

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