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American Football in the UK: Rugby vs American Football

The banter between rugby and American football fans is palpable. Both claim their sport is better and tougher. We tried to solve the age old questions comparing the two sports.

Rugby tackle: UMD vs JMU
Rugby tackle: UMD vs JMU
Sean Michael

While playing American football in the UK I haven't had anyone say to my face that rugby players are tougher than football players but a quick browse on the web will quickly find people that think that way. They'll call football "hand-egg" and point out that we wear pads and helmets. Conversely, football fans and players come up with counter arguments about hitting force and the complexity of the game.

But the differences don't just come down to toughness. The rules and setup of the games are different. The balls are more different than you would think. In reality, there are loads of other differences between the sports.

I played a bit of rugby at the University of Maryland but I'm no expert. I mostly just ran around and hit people, though I was part of the team long enough to take the lead image for this article. I've wanted to do a piece comparing the two sports and after a back and forth with one of our readers, Mark, and some of my teammates, Matt and Robbie, we can do a real comparison. All of them have played both rugby and American football throughout their lives and have years of experience.

What positions did you play in each sport and how long did you play each?

Robbie: Rugby: Played mainly scrum half but also played fly half, centre, wing, full back and flanker. Played rugby for 8 years for Mansfield Rugby club from U11’s to adult level. AF: Play halfback, have played since January 2015 so about a year and a half. Play for Nottingham Caesars Juniors and NTU Renegades.

Matt: In American football I’ve played Defensive tackle and Defensive end for the past two years at University, before this I played Rugby for 7 years playing and training with school and club. I played second row/8 for rugby.

Mark: I played Number 8/ Flanker and Lock in Rugby. I started playing when I was 7 years old and ended up representing for Gloucestershire, South West England and playing in the junior team for Bristol Rugby at under 19 years old, which was a development team for the Bristol Rugby pro team who played in the English premiership league, at 18 I enlisted in the Royal Navy so Rugby took some what of a back seat due to my military service but I still represented the Submarine Service and the Royal Navy Medics at rugby multiple times. Football I started when I was 17 but was forced to give it up due to being selected for the Bristol Rugby Academy. 3 years ago I moved to France for work and found out there was a very good Football team where I lived, I decided to give playing another shot and after getting through training camp I became part of the team and then a starter on the offensive line. I play mostly at Offensive Tackle but have taken snaps everywhere from DE, ILB, TE and OLB throughout my life. I’m currently going into preseason preparations for my second full season with the Grenoble Centaures in the French Casque d’or league, we expect quite a few new players this year as one of a former players who came through the youth ranks recently signed for the New York Giants, which has had a lot of exposure here.

There are multiple types of rugby, league, union, 7s etc. Which ones have you played and which ones are the most and least like American football?

Robbie: Played Union, League and 7s. League is the most like American Football due to having a shared concept of a limited number of phases/downs before possession is turned over. Union and 7s involve very similar rules the one another except one has 15 players and the other has 7.

Matt: I’ve played mostly union and a bit of sevens at a charity tournament and intramural at school, to be honest if you look at each position individually you have similarities but I wouldn’t call the sports as a whole similar. Like if you compare your offensive and defensive line to the front row of a scrum battling against each other.

Mark: I almost exclusively 15 Rugby Union , which is generally the most popular type of Rugby. As for similarities, apart from the shape of the ball being very similar and now football moving towards more of a rugby style of tackling, there really isn’t any.

How does the physicality compare between the two sports? Some specific things I’d like you to touch on include pads vs no pads, the violence of hits, the number of hits, and that type of thing.

Robbie: In my opinion American Football is more physical than Rugby. I think this for a few reasons, playing halfback there isn’t a single down that goes by where you don’t get hit or make a hit. (Unless you run into the end zone untouched, which is rare). Even though some people say that it doesn’t hurt as much because you have pads on. I can tell you that it hurts just as much if not more due to the impact of hits being much bigger, and also due to the fact that everyone has helmets on which can be used as a weapon as much as they are to protect, if someone hits their helmet on your arm/leg while you’re running you will know about it.

Matt: The physicality is high in both sports, the comparison is seen that rugby being the flowing sport requires constant stress on the body through hits, but if you compare the two forms of hitting between both sports you’ll understand why the pads are a safety requirement. With rugby you tend to tackle with the correct form, wrack the legs and drive as it’s the best way to bring someone down, this doesn’t actually cause much harm to either player, compared to some American football hits like a crack block where an individual ‘blind side’s’ a player and catches him from side on where he can’t see, now this hurts if done properly.

Mark: As a right tackle in football, the day after a big game, my thighs burn and my arms are covered in bruises, I think it is pretty well known that in football pads and helmet change little because what you gain in protection is taken away by the fact your opponent can hit harder because they also have pads, in both sports I’ve taken hits that have completely shook my body. However the hits in rugby do tend to be less violent and more controlled but as I said earlier football tackling is changing somewhat to be more rugby style hits around the legs to wrap up receivers and running backs.

American football is a very start and stop sport while rugby is freer flowing. Can you explain how these affect gameplay and which one you prefer?

Robbie: American Football may look slow and stop start when watching it, but when you are playing it there isn’t as much of a chance for a break as you would think, especially when every down is played at 100% intensity by everyone on the field. Rugby is a much freer flowing game however nobody is at 100% all the time, there are points when players are jogging around and not sprinting which is the major difference. Rugby requires more aerobic fitness whereas American Football requires more anaerobic due to all the short sprints.

Matt: The free flowing of rugby often see’s players especially at a lower – mid level start to dwindle off towards the end of games and become a lot weaker and slower as endurance is low, compared to American football the stop start method creates high intensity and as close to 100% in the last seconds of the game. I prefer American football for this, as it’s much more intense when players are literally throwing every thing at it in the last moments of the game rather than just seeing a team out run another.

Mark: I always enjoyed the free flowing style of Rugby, as for what I prefer now, I do appreciate not running non stop for 80 minutes, I am getting older and not the same fitness level I was when I was younger. One of the reasons I really enjoy Football is because every snap is a battle, combat between me and the DE, when it is done we get ready to go again, I love the excitement I get from keeping the guy in check snap after snap.

Which sport is more complex?

Robbie: American Football. Each play is thought through by coaches to try and make it work as well as possible, if it doesn’t work it will go back to the drawing board to be tweaked. Rugby can have designed plays by backs but not to the extent of American Football.

Matt: Both sports require intelligence; in American football it takes a great deal of perseverance to learn the game, your position, playbook and everything else. Compared to rugby with its fast flowing knowing quickly how to react to situations and act fast.

Mark: Rugby is a technical and complex sport but nothing like football. I have to study the playbook at home, learn the audibles, blocking schemes, learn the pass protection audibles and then when I have all the O Line stuff down I have to learn the Defensive playbook as well because I could play that side of the ball. Football is like a chess match with contact.

Which ball do you find easier to throw, catch, kick, etc.?

Robbie: Rugby ball.

Matt: I’d have to say rugby for all three, playing from young you just kind of get used to it, it becomes a regular motion, like riding a bike. I guess over years my skills with an American football ball will improve but for now it isn’t at as high a level.

Mark: Rugby balls are far easier to catch and kick because they are bigger and fatter, however footballs are made to be thrown so travel easily in the air (although I am no QB).

While there are some similarities, there are some major differences. What are some things you have to re-learn or do a differently when you transition between the two sports?

Robbie: Holding the ball is a lot different to rugby. In rugby most of the time you would be expected to hold the ball in two hands out in front so you have the option to pass it. In American football that’s not the case as you need to keep the ball as secure as possible so that you don’t fumble it.

Matt: Traditional tackling used to be different, with rugby it was implemented with good form, American football you have profile tackling and previously a head first tackle but after reconsideration on the concussion’s received due to this many teams have adapted the ‘Seahawks’ tackling technique which is similar to rugby. Head behind the waist, wrap the legs and twist. This takes the player down with the least damage possible to the tackler.

Mark: The main thing is learning the playbook, as well as that learning the nuances of the rules, in france the rules are more in line with NCAA so you have to know how many yards you may give up for a certain penalty, I had to learn what targeting was etc. As well the thing I found really difficult was developing my footwork as a pass blocker, I had never done anything like it before.

There’s some banter between rugby fans where they make fun of American football players for not being tough. Having played both sports, do you think one is tougher than the other or is that just playful back and forth?

Robbie: From my experience both are pretty tough but American football edges it due to the impact and consistency of hits.

Matt: I’d say both sports are full of tough people, like you can be physically fit enough for either sport at the same shape and size it’s more about your mind and learning the game, be in the right position and do the right thing at the right time and you’re successful. It’s always going to be a playful back and fourth, the number 1 physical in America and the number 1 physical sport in the UK, each country will always think their own sport is better until you try the other.

Mark: I think it is mostly just banter, we have trained with the local rugby team before and drank after the matches together and they seem to respect what we do and the work we put down on the turf. It is mutual respect and good natured ribbing.

What do you think is more likely, rugby becoming big in the United States or American football becoming big in Europe?

Robbie: American football in Europe, this year marked the first time for a player to be drafted to the NFL straight from a European League, Moritz Böhringer.

Matt: At the moment both are evolving within their foreign borders. The USA now actually have a union team and compete in sevens, whilst European Universities are adapted and creating teams for American football. I feel that American football will be the first to blow up as it’s already having official NFL games played in London and there is even talks of creating a London team.

Mark: I think that there is a high chance that both happen. In football you see the London going crazy for the international series and tickets selling out quickly, even at our level we played a game in front of 6000 fans this year which was unthinkable 5 years ago. Add this to the Europeans who have recently gone into the NFL and the first ever player drafted directly from Europe and I can only see the sport growing here, especially as the NFL are actively putting money into it. For Rugby 10 years ago I didn’t even know America had a team, now you see them competing in the world cup and winning Rugby 7’s tournaments. I love both sports and wish them to both grow.

American football has loads of injury concerns including a multi million dollar concussion related lawsuit. Does Rugby have the same concerns? If so what has been done to make rugby safer?

Robbie: Rugby players don’t wear helmets and pads – scrum caps do little more than prevent cauliflower ears – so high tackles are dangerous and thus banned. Instead, players are taught to get low, keep their head behind the ball carrier, hit with their shoulders, and then grasp the ball carrier’s legs and bring them to the ground.

Matt: This comes down to the tackling techniques, in any sport with a poor technique can lead to injuries. However with the adaption of the ‘Seahawk’ tackling technique I spoke about earlier it lowers the amount of head collisions within the game, creating a safer game.

Mark: No there are nowhere near as many concussions [in] rugby, head to head contact is very rare due to the lack of helmets. However there is also a concussion protocol in rugby.

Big thanks to my Robbie, Matt, and Mark for helping me out as well as my dad for helping me with the questions. Ultimately it seems like rugby and American football are both physically tough sports that have less in common than one might think after a casual glance.

We'd love to hear your stories below in the comments, especially if you have insight on either or both sports.