Rugby and American Football

Completely confused by rugby?

Living in America, I naturally have many American friends who know little to nothing about Rugby football.  Surprisingly, a fair few of them immediately think of Aussie Rules Football which had some airplay in the 80s and 90s.  That’s what rugby is, right?

Wrong!  Rugby football is quite different, yet not completely unfamiliar to an American football fan.  So the following article is for the benefit of those interested enough to give rugby a look, but who have absolutely no idea what the hell is going on.

Rugby has many things in common with American football.  The biggest similarity is the objective.  Like American football, the runner must make their way up the field with the ball in hand, battling past the defending team in order to reach the opponent’s in-goal area.  However, while a touchdown occurs in American football simply by moving the ball-in-hand over the line, in rugby, the player has to physically touch the ball to the ground with their hand to score the points.  This is called a “try” and earns five points.  A try is followed by a kick for goal called a “conversion”, just like an extra point in American football.  This is in reference to the opportunity of the goal kicker to convert the try from five points to seven.  The defending team’s job is to stop the runner with the ball by tackling them to the ground and, if possible, forcing a turnover of possession.

Despite the basic similarity, American football and rugby are fundamentally different. In rugby, headgear is optional, emphasizing the raw edge to the contact sport.  Both are immensely physical games, though arguably rugby requires greater endurance due to the sustained nature of the game.  I’ll get to that soon.

Games are made up of two 40 minutes halves with 10-12 minute break during half time.  In this respect, rugby is much like soccer football, “a game of two halves”.  Time passes much more quickly, with only the referee able to stop the clock if absolutely necessary.  Rugby football keeps going, whereas downs in football involve routine stoppages of the clock.  This means that the average game of rugby takes only about 90-100 minutes, while as we all know, American Football is a commitment of several hours with a couple of minutes of game time dragging out as long as 10 or more minutes.

One of the major differences is that each player on both teams is allowed to pass, kick and run with the ball regardless of the role of their position.  Think of it like every player being a Quarterback.  There’s one small catch, however.  Passing can only be done laterally or behind, meaning players must be parallel or behind the player with the ball to legally receive a pass.  Therefore, a pass which is made to another player who is further up the field is an illegal “forward pass” and will incur a penalty.

American football is a very paced tactical game consisting of plays that require constant resets of the line of scrimmage.  Rugby football is free flowing and only stops when a penalty has occurred, the ball goes dead, or points have been scored.  Imagine if there was no pause and reset between first and fourth downs in American football!  In that respect, it has a little more in common with a rival rugby code known as Rugby League.   In League, the team with the ball can be tackled five times, but a sixth tackle will force the ball to be handed over to the other team.  Sound familiar?  In American Football, the typical choice approaching the final down is to punt the ball or attempt a field goal.  This strategy does not factor into the game of Rugby Union, however.  The phases of play (successive tackles) continue indefinitely unless the game is interrupted by a fumble, penalty or points on the board.  This forces the defense to have an element of offense in order to find ways to get the ball back.

So, you are probably getting confused right about now.  Why are there two variants of rugby?  In 1895, a split along class lines led to two different codes of the game: Union and League.  Think of it a little like WWF and WCW rival wrestling federations, except still going!  Originally, it was a divide between whether the sport should allow amateur or professional players, something of an idealistic vs pragmatic powder keg between middle and working classes.  Fortunately, class divides have been bridged, although the two rival codes remain far apart.  Rugby Union, the form of the game known simply as rugby, did not remove restrictions on player payments until it officially became a professional sport in 1995!

Let me just be clear that I don’t hate League.  My interest in rugby football actually was first piqued by that form of the game.  League is a 13 man game, while Union is 15 and both have slightly different rules.  Union is far more widely played on a global level and, objectively speaking, offers a wider variety of offensive and defensive strategies.  In my opinion, that removes some of the repetitiveness in the simpler 13 man game.  Generally, when someone is talking “rugby” they are referring to Rugby Union (except in Australia).

So… When the gameplay of Rugby Union is interrupted for whatever reason, there are several ways to restart.

When the ball crosses the white chalk of the sideline and becomes dead, the team responsible loses possession to the opposing team.  This forces a lineout to be formed.  The lineout is something Rugby League lacks, as it is unique to Union.  Both teams line up, similar to a line of scrimmage while the designated player is charged with throwing the ball back into play to one of their teammates in the lineout.  Just as with American football, there are various plays that can be used as the thrower (hooker) targets one of his line of players.  Throw-ins do not always go as planned and, frequently, the contesting team can win back possession of the ball and resume play.

When the ball goes dead in the field of play, the game is restarted with a scrum.  This is a contest of strength that decides who gets possession of the ball.   There is no real parallel in American football.   It may sound like scrimmaging, and the word shares the same origin, but the practice in play is very different.  The forward packs of 7-8 men from both teams line up and lock arms and heads and wrestle over the ball beneath them.  The goal is to gain possession of the ball by guiding it safely back with their feet through to their Half Back (Scrum Half) and so begin play once again in possession of the ball.  The contest of strength and skill allows the opposing team to compete to win the ball by forcing their rivals backward, seizing the ball and gaining possession.

Both Rugby League and Union feature the scrum, though it is given greater reverence in the latter.   Despite constant fiddling by the International Rugby Board, the scrum is frequently a frustrating aspect of the game due to its technical nature and repeated scrum resets.  The attitude in League seems to be that scrums are a nuisance and there has even been talk of abandoning it.  This is unlikely to happen in Union, though endless tinkering has yet to produce a satisfactory way forwards for this cherished contest.  A game within the game.

As you can see, some of the positions and tactics have shades of similarity with American football.  Overall, rugby is a fast flowing game with less direct control from the coaches during play.  The influence of the coach during the game is limited mostly to substitutions and half time talk.  The patterns for offense and defense are practiced during the week and the players and the team captain are then let loose in the game to make the tactical decisions themselves.  Aside from inspiring the team, the captain is the one who makes the decisions on when to kick for points in response to an awarded penalty vs territorial gain in an effort to score a try.

The most successful nations in the sport have not changed much in the last century, including New Zealand, South Africa, England, Australia, France and Wales.  Rugby is popular in Ireland, Scotland, Samoa, Tonga and Fiji, while it is growing in Japan, Argentina, and Italy.  In the USA and Canada, rugby is a bit of a university curiosity in the old school spirit of being an amateur sport.  However, the USA Eagles have been growing in strength and the popularity of Sevens Rugby is creating fresh interest.  Nations like Russia, Spain, Portugal and Brazil are keen to get a slice of the action, especially with the introduction of Sevens Rugby as an official Olympic sport.  This is helping export the game to an even broader global audience.

Sevens Rugby is a shortened version of Rugby Union, with two seven minute halves and only seven players on either side.  Monthly tournaments are held around the world with teams accumulating points to win the Sevens World Series title.  However, the 15 man form of Rugby Union is still the heart of the sport.  Like the FIFA Football World Cup, the Rugby World Cup and regular international matches throughout the year, add a patriotic level of loyalty to the teams that transcends city based domestic tournaments as seen in the American National Football League or Australian National Rugby League.  You are rooting for your nation to earn a global spotlight on the prowess and heroics of your sportsmen and women.  It’s a whole other level of passion.

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