Tackles and Touchdowns: Is Rugby Like Football?

John Rizzo

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The world of sports is filled with a multitude of games, each unique in its own right. Among the most physically demanding and passionately followed are rugby and football. 

These two sports, despite their shared origins in various forms of football, have developed into distinct and captivating entities.

While they may appear similar to the uninitiated observer due to their physical nature and ball-carrying aspects, a closer examination reveals a myriad of differences, from gameplay rules to protective gear. 

This exploration aims to shed light on the question: Is rugby like football? Through an examination of their rules, playing styles, and global reach, we will uncover the nuanced distinctions that set these sports apart and have earned each its own devoted following.

Is Rugby Like Football? 

Rugby and football, often referred to as soccer in some parts of the world, share some similarities due to their common origins in various forms of football that were played in the 19th century. However, they have evolved into distinct sports with significant differences.

One major difference lies in how the ball is handled. In football (soccer), players primarily use their feet to control and advance the ball, and only the goalkeeper can use their hands within the penalty area. 

In rugby, on the other hand, players are allowed to carry the ball in their hands, pass it backward to teammates, and run with it. Rugby involves elements of running, passing, and kicking the ball, adding complexity to the gameplay.

Another key distinction is the level of physical contact. Rugby is a full-contact sport where tackling opponents is a fundamental aspect of the game. 

The field dimensions, scoring methods, and rules governing each sport also differ significantly. Rugby includes variations like rugby union and rugby league, each with its own set of rules and gameplay nuances. 

Difference Between Rugby And Football

Here are some differences between rugby and football:

Shape And Size Of The Ball

Shape And Size Of The Ball

Rugby uses a round ball that is about 28 cm long and 60 cm in circumference at its widest point. Football uses an oval-shaped ball that is about 28 cm long and 56 cm in circumference at the center. 

The shape and size of the ball affect the way it can be thrown, kicked, and carried in the game. Rugby balls are more stable and precise for short passes, while footballs are more aerodynamic and suitable for long throws.

Number Of Players On The Field

Rugby has 15 players on the field for each team, while football has 11 players on the field for each team. The number of players influences the strategy and dynamics of the game. 

Rugby requires more endurance and teamwork, while football requires more specialization and coordination.

Geographical Location And Origin

Rugby is mainly played in Europe and the southern hemisphere, especially in countries like England, Ireland, Wales, New Zealand, and Australia. Football is mainly played in North America, especially in the United States and Canada. 

Rugby originated in England in the early 19th century, when it was introduced in public schools as a variation of football. Football originated in the late 19th century when it was developed from rugby and soccer by college students.

Protective Equipment

Rugby players wear minimal protective equipment, such as mouth guards, scrum caps, and shoulder pads. Football players wear helmets, face masks, shoulder pads, chest protectors, thigh pads, knee pads, and other protective gear. 

The difference in equipment reflects the difference in physical contact and injury risk between the two sports. Rugby relies more on tackling and rucking, while football involves more blocking and hitting.

Time Limit And Clock Management

Rugby has two 40-minute halves with a 10-minute halftime break. The clock only stops for prolonged injuries or other major interruptions. Football has four 15-minute quarters with a 12-minute halftime break. 

The clock stops frequently between plays for timeouts, penalties, incomplete passes, or other reasons. The difference in time limit and clock management affects the pace and intensity of the game. 

Rugby is more continuous and fluid, while football is more structured and strategic.

Passing Rules

Rugby allows only backward or lateral passes, meaning that the ball cannot be thrown forward or ahead of the player who has it. Football allows forward passes, meaning that the ball can be thrown to any player who is ahead of or behind the player who has it. 

The difference in passing rules affects the way the teams advance the ball and score points. Rugby is more horizontally focused and relies on running and kicking, while football is more vertically focused and relies on throwing and catching.

Scoring System

Rugby has four ways to score points: a try (5 points), which is when a player places the ball on or over the opponent’s goal line; a conversion (2 points), which is a kick at goal after a try; a penalty kick (3 points), which is a kick at goal awarded for an infringement by the opponent; and a drop goal (3 points), which is a kick at goal during open play. 

Football has three ways to score points: a touchdown (6 points), which is when a player carries or catches the ball in or over the opponent’s end zone; an extra point (1 or 2 points), which is a kick or a run/pass at goal after a touchdown; and a field goal (3 points), which is a kick at goal during any down.

Which One Is More Popular? Rugby Or Football? 

Rugby Or Football

Rugby is more popular than football in terms of global fan base, international presence, and media coverage. Here are some reasons with data to support this claim:

Fan Base

Rugby has over 405 million fans worldwide, while football has about 400 million fans. Rugby is more popular in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, while football is mainly popular in the United States and Canada.

International Presence

Rugby is played in 221 countries, while football is played in 80 countries. Rugby has a stronger international presence, with major competitions such as the Rugby World Cup, the Six Nations, the Rugby Championship, and the Super Rugby. 

Football has a limited international presence, with the NFL being the dominant league and the International Federation of Football (IFAF) being the governing force.

Media Coverage

Rugby has more media coverage than football, especially during the Rugby World Cup, which is the fifth most-watched sporting event on the planet with 857 million television viewers. 

Football has less media coverage outside of North America, especially during the NFL Super Bowl, which is the ninth most-watched sporting event on the planet with 102 million television viewers.

History And Origin

Rugby has a longer history and origin than football, dating back to the early 19th century in England. Rugby was introduced in public schools as a variation of football and later spread to other countries through British influence. 

Football has a shorter history and origin, dating back to the late 19th century in the United States. Although football was developed from rugby and soccer by college students and later became a professional sport.

Rules And Gameplay

Rugby has simpler rules and gameplay than football, making it easier to understand and follow for spectators. Rugby allows only backward or lateral passes, has continuous play with no timeouts or downs, and has fewer stoppages and interruptions. 

Football has more complex rules and gameplay than rugby, making it harder to understand and follow for spectators. Also, football allows forward passes, has discrete play with timeouts and downs, and has more stoppages and interruptions.

Equipment And Protection

Rugby requires less equipment and protection than football, making it more accessible and affordable for players. Rugby players wear minimal protective equipment, such as mouth guards, scrum caps, and shoulder pads. 

Football requires more equipment and protection than rugby, making it less accessible and affordable for players. However, football players wear helmets, face masks, shoulder pads, chest protectors, thigh pads, knee pads, and other protective gear.

Culture And Values

Rugby promotes more culture and values than football, such as respect, fair play, teamwork, camaraderie, and sportsmanship. Rugby players often show respect to their opponents, referees, and fans by shaking hands, clapping hands, or exchanging jerseys after a match. 

Rugby players also often socialize with their opponents after a match by sharing a drink or a meal. Football promotes less culture and values than rugby, such as aggression, competition, individualism, rivalry, and entertainment. 

Football players often show aggression to their opponents, referees, and fans by trash-talking, taunting, or celebrating after a play. Football players also often avoid socializing with their opponents after a match by leaving the field or locker room quickly.


Is rugby like football?

While rugby and football share some similarities, such as physicality and ball-carrying aspects, they are distinct sports with significant differences. 

Rugby allows continuous play with minimal stoppages, emphasizes teamwork, and involves full-body tackling, while football features frequent stoppages, specialized positions, and forward passing as a primary offensive tactic.

What are the key differences between rugby and football?

Some key differences include rules governing ball handling (rugby allows carrying and lateral passes, while football features forward passes), protective gear (rugby players wear minimal gear, while football players use helmets and pads), and the level of specialization in football positions.

Are rugby and football played internationally?

Yes, both sports have international followings, but rugby enjoys broader global participation, with multiple variants like rugby union and rugby league. Football is predominantly popular in the United States.

Can rugby players switch to football and vice versa?

While some skills, such as tackling, may transfer between the sports, the specialization and rule differences often make a seamless transition challenging. It is possible for athletes to switch, but it requires significant adaptation.

Which sport is more physically demanding, rugby or football?

Both sports are physically demanding, but the nature of physicality differs. Rugby involves continuous running, tackling, and endurance, while football features intense, short bursts of physicality, often punctuated by stoppages. The physical demands depend on position and playing style in each sport.


In the arena of sports, diversity, and distinctiveness are celebrated, and rugby and football exemplify this diversity. While both sports share a common ancestry, their paths have diverged significantly over time. 

Rugby, with its global reach and inclusive nature, has a presence in numerous countries and boasts a passionate worldwide fanbase. Football, particularly the NFL, enjoys unrivaled popularity within the United States, marked by colossal television viewership and commercial impact. 

Despite superficial similarities, rugby and football are unmistakably unique, with differences in rules, gameplay, protective gear, and global appeal that set them apart. 

Ultimately, whether one prefers the relentless physicality of rugby or the strategic complexities of football, both sports contribute to the rich tapestry of the sporting world, each offering its own brand of excitement and entertainment.

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John Rizzo

I am a professional rugby player in the Washington DC-Baltimore area. I have been playing rugby for over 10 years and have had the opportunity to play in many different countries. I am also a coach for both youth and adult rugby teams. I graduated from Johns Hopkins University with a degree in Sports Management and Marketing. I am currently working on my MPA from American University and plan to pursue this career path after graduating next year. LinkedIn

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