Rugby vs American Football: Which is the tougher contact sport and why?

Rugby vs American Football: Which is the tougher contact sport and why?

Bertha Wanjiku
updated at April 12, 2023 at 8:12 PM

In 19th-century England, the game of rugby was born, which bore similarities to modern-day soccer. British colonists and the military brought the game to North America, where the natives tweaked the rules, excluding the power and adding entertainment. American football came into being over time. All deviations require intense physical aggression, but which of them is the tougher contact sport and why?

Rugby vs American football
Huddling or scrimmage in Rugby and American football. Photos by John P. Kelly and Bernhard Lang. (modified by the author).
Source: Getty Images

With the shared ancestry of the two sports, there are bound to be some similarities and differences between them. Deciding which sport is more brutal is attributed to power, strength, agility, endurance, speed, nerve, durability and coordination. This article explores the nature of both sports.

Rugby vs American football

In both sports, two competing teams attempt to advance an oval ball down a field to the opposing team's score line or kick it over goalposts. The team not possessing the ball defends by tackling the player with the ball or snatching it. The main differences between the two are the number of players, the field and equipment used, game action, how the ball can be advanced, and the number of points awarded for various ways of scoring.

Differences between rugby and American football





110mX91.4m (120X100 yards)

120mX68m (130X74 yards)


11"(28cm) long, 22"(56cm) wide,weighs 0.875lbs (0.4kg)

10.6"(27cm) long, 23.6"(60cm) wide, weighs 1lb (0.45kg).

No. of players

Two teams of eleven players

Two teams of 13-15 players


Six referees and a booth review

Four referees (TV official, two assistants).

Time limit

The game takes four 15-minute quarters, with a half-time intermission after the second quarter with frequent stops between plays.

The game takes two 40-minute halves with a ten-minute half-time. The clock only stops for prolonged injuries.



Seven (max)

Main Games

NFL Playoffs

Rugby World Cup


Helmet, shoulder/chest pad, upper leg padding, and a mouthguard

Mouth guard

Main league

National Football League (NFL)

Domestic, International, and European


US and Canada


World champ

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

New Zealand All Blacks

Player size

245lbs (111kg)

225lbs (102kg)

Average tackles per game



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Similarities between rugby and American football

Both are intense contact sports on a rectangular field with an oval-shaped ball. Both sports feature defensive physical collisions, where players stop opposing ball carriers with a tackle. Offensive teams strive to get the ball into the opposition's end of the field and over a line to score a goal. Completing this scoring move earns the team points in a touchdown or a try. A player can then score further points for their team by kicking the ball through posts in both sports.

The tougher contact sport between Rugby vs American Football
A professional football quarterback drops back for a pass during a game, and a dirty rugby player poses for a picture. Photos by Lorado and Thomas Barwick. (modified by author).
Source: Getty Images

Rules differentiating rugby and American football






Only in injury

Role of players



Ball handling

Front passes

Sideways or backwards

Ball possession

Once per down

Continuous if not tackled

The popularity of rugby and American football

The Rugby World Cup is enjoyed worldwide, with prominence in South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, and parts of Europe. As the name suggests, American football is popular in the Americas, that is, the US and Canada. Over time, gridiron has gained worldwide fans, especially during the NFL Super Bowl.

Which is better, rugby or American football?

Practically, only one cross-sport game is recorded to have been played between Jacksonville Axemen (rugby) and the Jacksonville Knights (football) on 1 August 2009. The Knights won the first half, played using football rules, and the Axemen evened the score in the second half, which was played using rugby rules. The game ended with the Axemen beating the Knights 38-27.

While this score may illustrate rugby players to be better than American football players, determining which sport is better requires more parameters than a cross-code game can offer.

Is rugby or American football the tougher contact sport?
A rugby player runs with the ball, pushing away from a tackle, and a football receiver makes an over-the-shoulder catch against a defender. Photos by Peepo and Thomas Barwick, modified by the author.
Source: Getty Images

Which is more challenging, rugby or American football?

Both are tough, uncompromising sports producing breathtaking displays of athleticism. Players must undergo endurance training to get into the physical form required for the intensity and aggression of the sports. According to ESPN's classification, rugby is the thirteenth most brutal sport. Football is ranked third!

Which is a tougher contact sport between rugby and American football?

According to ESPN's classification of the most brutal sports, football is ranked third, while rugby is thirteenth. Cricket is not a contact sport. Players wear safety helmets and gear that protect them from the ball, which is made from cork.

In summary, spectators who prefer flashy attacks all over the field will appreciate rugby. However, in American football, the physical preparation and tactical component come first. In this essence, rugby is perhaps the tougher contact sport.

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Sportsbrief recently published an article ranking the most influential footballers. These athletes have made some of the best athletes in the world. Some players became business brands and made their mark in the entrepreneurial world.

The most influential players performed impressively for their club and country. Click on the link above to learn about this decade's 20 most influential footballers!

Bertha Wanjiku photo
Bertha Wanjiku