“Rugby is just the NFL but without the pads” you’ll often hear in response to the question “what’s the difference between American football and rugby. This couldn’t be further from the truth, as the two games are as different as Hockey and Soccer.

One of the biggest commonalities between them, however, is that they both have a large betting market, with sportsbook sites for football odds as well as rugby.

So, here is a round-up of all the key differences between the two sports and why they both have their place in the world of sports:


One of the biggest differences between the two sports is the passing. In rugby, you cannot pass the ball forward.

Rugby law 12.1: The outcome of a knock-on or throw forward: (a) Unintentional knock-on or throw forward. A scrum is awarded at the place of infringement.

When progressing up the pitch in rugby, players will run alongside a teammate waiting to receive a pass, making sure they do not run ahead of their teammate, which would then make the sideways pass impossible.

However, in American football, in general play, the player can throw the ball forward, or back, and even kick the ball up the pitch – though the latter is very rare.

In American football, it will require subbing a specialist punter to kick the ball forwards. However, in rugby, it’s possible to kick forwards by any player and any time without being penalized. So the players can knock the ball up the field with their feet to get relieve pressure and allow their team to have a higher presence up the pitch.

Number of Players and Points

In rugby, there are 15 players on the field, with 8 reserves (which do not have to be used). In the NFL, 11 players start the game for each team. One team will start with possession in the NFL, known as the offense, as it of course attempts to make its way down the pitch to cross the ball over the goal line and into the end zone.

Rugby is similar, but games do not start with an offensive team and a defensive team. Instead, possession is immediately fought over from the beginning, with both sides playing both offensively and defensively simultaneously, or depending on which team has the ball at that moment.

Getting behind that try line (equivalent to the goal line in NFL) with the ball in hand will get you a try, which is worth 5 points, whereas the equivalent touchdown in the NFL is worth 6 points. From here in the NFL, the team can either score an extra point over the goalposts or score an extra 2 points by scoring another touchdown.

In rugby after scoring a try, the only option is a conversion, in which the team tries to kick the ball off the floor through the goal post. The ball is kicked from where the try was scored (in terms of width placement), but can be moved back away from the goal post as far as they wish. So, after a very central try (i.e. scored right by where the goal post is) then the conversion kick is likely to be taken quite close, but for wider angles, it’s preferable to bring the ball far back to get a better angle.

Pitch size

A difference between the imperial and metric system means that American Football is measured in yards, in which the offensive team tries to maximize their yardage on a pitch that is 100 yards. Conversely, rugby uses meters and plays on a pitch that is 100 meters in length. In NFL, if an offensive team moves the ball forward by 10+ yards, they earn a first down and earn a set of four downs. In rugby, moving the ball 10 meters up the pitch means very little, other than being closer to scoring a try.


Preventing the team in possession from making ground up the pitch is important in both sports. In rugby, tackling is somewhat generalized, in which they try and bring the opponent to the ground and sometimes even hold them there. Going to the ground is perfectly fine, but the player who has just been tackled must quickly look to release the ball as to not obstruct play.

In the NFL, a player is tackled when one or more knees touch the ground, which then the play is over.

Game length

Rugby is an 80-minute game that is played over two halves of 40 minutes. Conversely in the NFL, games are divided into four quarters of 15 minutes each, with a 12 minute half time break and 2-minute breaks between quarters.

Final Word

There are, of course, many more differences between the two sports – including NFL wearing pads and rugby not. There are also very different systems of penalties and punishments for breaking rules. Check the official 2021 NFL rulebook for more information.