Which of these two sports rugby or American football is more difficult to play, despite their reputations for roughness and contact? There is no better time than now to examine the differences between the two sports, as the Six Nations is currently being played and the Super Bowl is just around the corner.
Follow along below as we take you through the primary distinctions between the sports, as well as our analysis of the potential risks involved in participating in each.
The aim of the game
Rugby Union: In rugby, the aim of the game is to run with the ball, only passing backwards to teammates, into the opposition’s goal zone where you need to place the ball down with full control in order to score a ‘try’. Scoring a try is worth five points, with a successful conversion worth two extra points, while a penalty kick earns the team three points.
NFL: As for American football, the ball can be passed or run into the endzone through a series of plays. The player needs to catch or run the ball in the endzone with two feet on the ground to make a ‘touch down’. A touch down counts for six points, with one point for a kicked conversion and two points for a special play where you score another touchdown worth 2 points. Alternatively on the ‘fourth down’ a side may opt for a field goal which is worth three points.
Rugby Union: The clock doesn’t stop until the referee blows his whistle to call time out, with the game flowing freely otherwise. A game of rugby is divided into two 40-minute halves, with no additional time, although one can play until the ball is out of bounds after the 40th and 80th minute.
NFL: In American Football, the play is far more structured with frequent short breaks in between each ‘down’ and different special teams coming on and off the pitch for different plays – for example a punting team or a kick return team. Play is divided into four quarters of 15 minutes, and overtime will be added at the end of the game should it come to a draw.
Rugby Union: All rugby players must wear a mouthguard, but that is it as far as necessary protection. Some players opt for padding on their shoulders or scrum caps, but both options are soft and provide minimal protection.
NFL: American football players must all wear helmets with built in gumshields, as well as extensive padding for their upper body and thighs. The helmets are made of moulded polycarbonate which is incredibly strong and provides good protection for the head.
Number of players Rugby vs NFL
Rugby Union: On a rugby pitch there are a maximum of 15 players per team on field at any one time, with possible red or yellow cards reducing those numbers at times.
NFL: For each team, American football only allows 11 players on the field at one time; however, these 11 players are parts of different teams which are rotated around based on the play as mentioned previously.
Key Stats Compared Rugby vs NFL
Average contact per game
Rugby Union: In rugby, there is no contact allowed off the ball, with no contact above the shoulders allowed in any instance. The team in the UK’s Rugby Premiership with the most tackles so far this season (13 games so far) is Gloucester Rugby, who have made 2007 successful tackles so far (154.38 average per game).
As far as individual tackling statistics go, London Irish’s Tom Pearson has just notched the most so far this season with 155 tackles completed, averaging 11.92 tackles per game.
NFL: In American football, there is frequent contact off the ball as the offensive line protect the quarterback and players downfield try to block receivers. The team with the highest number of tackles this season were the Houston Texans with 829 in total (48.76 average per game).
Individually, the player with the most tackles this season was Jacksonville Jaguars’ Foye Oluokun with 184 tackles (10.82 average), however this statistic combines tackles he helped teammates with, individually Oluokun has only made 97 tackles (5.7 average).
Rugby Union: In the Rugby Premiership, the highest scoring team so far has been London Irish with 51 tries this season. Interestingly this has not converted into success for the side as they are currently in the bottom half of the table, showing that penalty kicks and not conceding tries is equally important.
NFL: The highest scoring team in the NFL this season were the Kansas City Chiefs, with 61 touch downs to their name. They have won their AFC Conference Championship and will face off against the Philadelphia Eagles in the Super Bowl, showing that touch downs definitely make a huge impact in the NFL.
What is the most dangerous situation?
Rugby Union: In rugby the scrum can be a particularly taxing place, with spinal injuries occurring frequently enough to cause paralysis in hundreds of players over the years. Obviously nowhere is ‘safe’ on the pitch, but the scrum and breakdown areas where big forwards are involved seem to be the most hazardous.
NFL: The front line, known as the offensive line, seems like a particularly nasty place to play, with huge collisions every down. But the most dangerous aspect of American football seems to be head collisions, with some studies indicating the majority of players have shown symptoms of concussion or brain damage, far higher than the percentage in rugby players.
Rugby Analysis – Which is more dangerous?
The most important thing to note is that neither sport is particularly safe, with injuries occurring nearly every fixture and critics calling for stricter rules across both sports. Rugby Union has specifically made strides in this area as of late, increasing the punishment for head contact to a straight red card and trying to introduce a ban on tackles above waist height – much to grass roots clubs’ protest.
The case for rugby being more dangerous is that it can be far more physically taxing to play an uninterrupted game for 40 minutes and be required to tackle men potentially double your weight while wearing little to no protective gear. Also, as the stats shown above, teams have to tackle more in rugby, so the increased levels of contact mean a higher likelihood of injury-causing collisions.
The case for American football would be that collisions may occur from more of a distance and there aren’t as strict rules in regard to what a legal tackle is, with head collisions a frequent occurrence that can cause permanent damage to the brain. So, one may end up getting head butted with a helmet going at full speed and as we saw with Damar Hamlin towards the end of the season, this can end catastrophically. Furthermore, the short bursts of intensity that come with the on/off playing style could potentially contribute to injuries.
On balance, the lack of protection for rugby players may make the sport slightly more dangerous, however this is a generalisation as both sports are intensely physical and can be hazardous to the brave players who dare compete, and as we see with the head injury rate in American football, it is clearly also incalculably dangerous.