Rugby and American football have been entrenched in the sporting calendars for over 100 years.

Believe it or not they had common ground at the start of their existence, but looking at the sports now there are so many differences between the one the Americans love and the gentleman’s game played across the globe.

We’ll now look back at how these differences began and try to discover if there’s any commonality between the two sports.

Rugby vs American football - history and rules

The first game of rugby union is believed to have been played in the 19th century when it is alleged that William Webb Ellis picked up a football and ran with it rather than the traditional kick.

There is no concrete evidence that this was the case, but given the Rugby World Cup has been named the Webb Ellis Cup it has been lodged well and truly in the folklore of the game.

As most people will know, there are two codes of rugby – union and league, which differ in rules and format.

Northern clubs disbanded from the governing body – the Rugby Football Union – in 1895 to form their own game known as rugby league, featuring 13 players rather than the traditional 15, while the manner of scoring (tries and penalties) and set-pieces such as lineouts and the scrum were also changed.

The technicalities of the rules of the game are more stringent in union rather the league.

Other than that, they both last 80 minutes with a half-time interval, are played with the same ball, in similar stadia, with only a slight difference in the length of the pitch. There are not many differences between the games when they began life to the ones that feature now.


Like rugby league, American football evolved out of rugby union, and was reportedly first played in 1869 at Princeton University between Princeton and Rutgers, although the rules were very different to the game as it exists today.

It bared a close resemblance to rugby union, featuring a scrum. Alterations were made in 1875, reducing the player numbers to 11 per side and the implementation of new positions, including quarterback.

The development of downs and distance to regulate possession of the ball changed the feel of the game completely from rugby along with the snap.

Whereas one is continuous action for 40 minutes outside of brief stoppages for injuries and set-pieces, the other is start and stop after a singular play. It has allowed the game to become strategic, albeit a lengthier one than its cousin.

In 1882, the scoring system was introduced for touchdowns, field goals, safeties and kicks after touchdowns.

It took time for the system to settle on what has become the norm for six points for a touchdown, three for a field goal, one for an extra-point kick and two for a safety.

Since 1912, it has more or less been unchanged, albeit styles of play are a contrast, focusing more on passing than running in the modern era. It remains a completely different game from where it began.

Rugby vs American football - injury statistics

A great debate rages whenever an American football match appears on television in the United Kingdom.

The topic always reverts back to the wearing of the protective shoulder pads and helmets whereas rugby players from the northern and southern hemisphere go au natural.

There are no protective pads in rugby – it’s mono-e-mono where muscle and bone collide. This naturally leads to a discussion about rugby vs American football injury statistics.

Week after week, injury reports are filled with players from up and down the league with numerous ailments. Some that they can battle on with others that rule them out for weeks or even the season.

It’s perhaps the biggest commonality between rugby and American football.

However, where they differ are the types of injuries. Given that rugby players are more often than not constantly on the move – they are susceptible to muscle injuries.

Muscular strains are the most common ailment noted by teams as they represent up to 40% of all issues recorded.

Rugby injuries are different to NFL injuries
Photo credit: Mark Baker / AP Photo


Starting and stopping in a short space of time does put strain on the legs, especially when it’s mixed in with bending and driving at the ruck or maul.

Forwards more so than backs are susceptible to these problems given that they are more likely to be in and around the maul and are generally carrying more weight.

Neck and shoulder injuries are also prevalent due to the force exerted on both areas of the body during tackling and scrummaging.

Constant collisions take their toll on players, which is why forwards are the most protected players in rugby – being withdrawn from the action more often than not in the second half.

This can lead to a lot of unpredictability and that can be exploited in the rugby betting, including live betting markets that are widely available such as results and points scored in a particular timespan in a game.

Without the protection of pads, it does leave a lot of wear and tear on the body and is a note of concern for all medical staffs.

Stringent rules and coaching on tackling help the cause and may be one of the main differences between the rugby and American football – particularly in the way the sports are officiated.


American football sees more ligament injuries than rugby as quick movements and inefficient tackling techniques result in damage to the leg area.

There is a lot more twisting and turning, involving running backs and wide receivers, which puts huge pressure on the knees and ankles.

There are a high amount of torn ACL and MCL injuries in the NFL, particularly on turf rather than grass fields where there is less give in the surface, with up to 73% of these issues being non-contact injuries.

Tackling rules in the NFL are less stringent than in rugby as players can use any part of their body to bring down an opponent.

It often leads to direct blows to the knees, which have resulted in catastrophe for teams, especially if the quarterback goes down – none more so than Tom Brady’s torn ACL in the 2008 season that affected the New England Patriots' Super Bowl odds in a run for the crown.

Injuries can play a huge role in deciding the outcome of the Super Bowl, so it's worth bearing in mind that aspect before placing a bet on the potential champion.

Those injuries are unavoidable for players during the course of a game, and it’s widely accepted during a career that a knee injury is part and parcel of playing the sport.

Rugby vs American football – head injuries

Where rugby and American football are now in lockstep in terms of injuries is their respective handling of concussions and head trauma.

For too long players were allowed to continue to return to the field of play after suffering a head injury. The NFL paid a heavy price for their neglect, settling a $500m lawsuit for players that suffered CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) during their careers.

Nowadays players undergo tests from an independent neurologist before they are allowed to play on.

Sports Betting During Coronavirus Crisis


There is still a long way to go before the system is full proof as there are still cases where players have re-entered the field with symptoms.

However, given the scrutiny by former players and the medical profession – there are encouraging signs that the NFL is turning the corner. Players are becoming fully aware of the dangers, with an increase of retirements citing CTE as a major cause for concern.

Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly called time on a potential Hall of Fame career at the age of 28 due to his concerns over his long-term health, and he has not been the only one in recent years, which naturally has an impact on various areas including the outright divisional markets in the NFL betting as it can catch teams off guard.

The case of Kuechly is especially poignant for the Panthers, who have seen their odds for the NFC South crown plummet due to his absence, which is eye-catching for bettors who punt on divisional titles in the NFL.


The NFL’s use of helmets and tackling technique has made their players more susceptible to the dangers of CTE, although it is still very prevalent in rugby.

A report in 2015 suggested concussions were now the leading injury sustained by players in the sport. It has been met with a response by World Rugby and governing bodies across the world.

England prop Kyle Sinckler was withdrawn from the 2019 Rugby World Cup Final after sustaining a concussion in the early minutes of the game.

A move that played a role in shifting the Rugby World Cup betting odds in the favour of South Africa, who won the game, and one that might not have been seen 20 or 30 years earlier.

Antepost markets are available for the Rugby World Cup, which takes place every four years - with the next one due in 2023.

However, it is often better to wait and see the teams develop before placing a punt as the smallest factor can make a huge difference.

Rugby players vs American football players

There has not been a great deal of crossover between American football and rugby so it's often seen as rugby players vs American football players rather than two sports where players can switch over easily.

Christian Wade played seven seasons for London Wasps on the wing, earning an England cap before opting to end his career in 2018 to attempt to break into the NFL. He made an impression at the Buffalo Bills at running back during the 2019 pre-season.

He did not quite have the talent to make the 53-man roster for the regular campaign, but he earned a spot on the practice squad and is still on their roster ahead of the 2020 season where they are the second-favourites to win the AFC East crown in the American football betting odds.


Whether he is able to take the next step in his development remains to be seen, although it will be a tough challenge given that he is 28.

Divisional titles are one of the main areas of betting on the NFL. However, in individual matches, bettors can place punts on the amount of yardage a back such as Wade could muster in a game - using the over/under system.

Wade has the body type that suits the NFL and could start a trend for similar players from rugby to make the transition.

Backs more so than players on the wing are suitable candidates to play as a running back in the NFL. It’s perhaps the most similar position as you’re looking to find a gap in the defence and have to break through tackles to gain positive ground.

Scrum-halves could also be useful in the same role, although they do not have the same dynamic speed.

The same could be said vice-versa where NFL running backs, wide receivers and even defensive backs could thrive in a rugby backfield either on the wing or as a scrum-half. Defensive backs could be the best suited given that they have the tackling skills and the athleticism to handle the dual responsibility.

The other possible transition could be players in the second row and offensive tackles. Both have similar body types ranging from 6ft 5in and above in height, and a shade over 300lbs.

Rugby players would likely have more success given that American football players on offense could not handle the responsibility of their defensive duties in rugby.

Nate Ebner - NFL and rugby player
Photo credit: Elise Amendola / AP Photo


Nate Ebner of the New York Giants, formerly of the Patriots, is one of the rare examples of an American football player playing rugby.

He represented Team USA at the 2016 Olympics, although it was rugby sevens, which is not as focused on set plays as their 15 and 13-man counterparts.

It was not a fruitful experience for Ebner given that the States were eliminated in the group stage, although he did score two tries.

When it comes to the rugby vs American football debate, there is a lot to contrast and few comparisons to be made.

American football is so regimented into different body types for certain positions, whereas rugby is more malleable outside of the front row.

Rugby requires a well-rounded skillset from everyone on the pitch whereas American football can allow a player to have deficiencies in a lot of areas outside of their primary role.

Perhaps in the early days of both sports crossover would have been easier, but the two sports have diverged perhaps too much for players to transition between them on a regular basis.

However, the popularity of both sports means that 888sport caters to both audiences with numerous betting markets available for punters across the board.

*Credit for the main photo belongs to Adrian Kraus / AP Photo*

About the Author
By
888sport

The 888sport blog, based at 888 Towers in the heart of London, employs an army of betting and tipping experts for your daily punting pleasure, as well as an irreverent, and occasionally opinionated, look at the absolute madness that is the world of sport.