American football and rugby are the two most popular team contact sports in the world. But how do the sports differ? Not when looking at the rules, but when examining the characteristics of the games? There are many different ways to compare the game of rugby to football. This is an issue I have dealt with quite extensively as an NFL fan in the rugby-crazed South Africa. Obviously the sentiment over here is usually that rugby is much more tough, and basically the harder game of the two. I’m not quite sure if one can come to that conclusion either way, but I am going to try and compare them as objectively as possible. I have very good rugby knowledge, and I also understand the nuances of football as well as anyone that has never played the game possibly can.
I’m going to use a scoring system to judge different aspects of both games. Let me start off with the juiciest part, namely the physicality. It has long been argued that rugby is more physical because players don’t wear as many pads and helmets to protect themselves. I say this is false. Something that many people in the States might not realize, is that in rugby you are not allowed to tackle someone in the same way as football. The rules state that it is dangerous play to tackle a player above the shoulders in rugby. Sup-flexing a player is not allowed (a la Brian Dawkins), and you are not allowed to “spear tackle” a player (lift him off of the ground and “dunk” him back down). These types of tackles all result in penalties, with the possibility of the transgressor receiving a yellow or red card (a yellow card means that the player is taken off the field for ten minutes and a red card means that the player is not allowed to come back onto the field at all. This means that the team whose player committed the offence, will play with 14 players against the 15 of the opponents, clearly a huge disadvantage). This doesn’t mean that there aren’t big tackles in rugby, it just means that it isn’t quite as hard as people might think. In rugby, tackles are also carried out in a more one-on-one fashion, whereas running backs especially are gang-tackled very often in the NFL. Obviously, I’d rather be tackled by one guy than by three or four. It really is a much closer race than people think, but I’ll have to give the edge to football by a slim margin, mainly because more brutal hits are allowed. I don’t care how many pads you wear, when Dawkins hits you, you will feel it.
Physicality Score: Football +2.
Another important area is in the all-round abilities of the players. In football, the positions are specialized. When you play OT, you won’t usually be asked to pass or catch the ball. It is not the same in rugby. Although there are also skill positions in rugby like centre of fly-half, it happens in every game that a player like a prop or a lock needs to catch, pass or even kick the ball. This versatility means that man-for-man, rugby players have better all-around skills. A good example is the fly-half. He needs to be able to kick, pass and catch the ball, as well as to tackle opposing players. He is very much the QB of a rugby team, but I don’t see Tom Brady kicking, punting, passing, receiving and tackling. I’m sorry, I just don’t. So when it comes to the all-round skills of the average rugby player vs. the average football player, rugby takes this round.
All-round skills: Rugby +5.
Then we come to individual skill players. Who wins when you compare the skill-position players in the NFL to the skill-position players in rugby? Skill position players in the NFL are QB, RB, WR and TE. A case could also be made for CB. In rugby the skill positions are scrumhalf, fly-half, centre, wing and fullback. Let’s take the International Rugby Board’s (IRB) player of the year for 2007: South African Springbok wing, Bryan Habana. And let’s compare him to the Philadelphia Eagles’ MVP for 2007: RB Brian Westbrook. Let me start by saying that Bryan Habana is fast. The guy has really good acceleration as well as a good top speed. Brian Westbrook is also fast, with a great burst. In the speed stakes I’d say they are pretty even. Habana is slightly taller than Westbrook at 5’9’’ compared to 5’8’’. Westbrook outweighs Habana with 203lbs to 198lbs. But they are very similar in build. However, when watching these guys play, it jumps out that Westbrook has a skill set that outweighs Habana’s by a ton. The way that Westbrook is able to evade three, four or five players and still have the speed to take it all the way is amazing. Habana is dangerous in space because he is fast, but he won’t make a defender miss very often. This fact can be found all the way through both sports. Skill players in rugby pale in comparison to the skill players of the NFL.
Skill-position players: Football +10.
The next important aspect is fitness. I am a strong believer that a player is better at his sport when he is as fit as possible. I guess that is something that comes from my rugby roots, but it is really very true. Even if you have a big, fat DT, he will still be a better player is he is able to jog for five miles. This is where football takes a lot of flack in the rugby world. NFL players are able to come off of the field very often, while rugby is a game that continuously flows. The only way that a player gets off the field in rugby, is if he is substituted. There are 15 players in the starting line-up, with 7 available replacements per game. If a player is replaced, he is not allowed back onto the field unless he plays prop (there are two props per team). The argument is often made that rugby players need to play continuously. This is true to a certain extent, but allow me to break down another myth. A rugby player is on the field for the full eighty minutes, but he is not involved for that entire time. He doesn’t run at full speed for eighty minutes. He doesn’t continuously tackle for eighty minutes. Thus, the intensity is lower than in the NFL, where every play is done at full speed and power. So even though rugby players don’t take breaks, the intensity of the few seconds that a play is run in the NFL is much higher than in rugby. Rugby is also eighty minutes, compared to the sixty minutes of a football game. This extra twenty minutes plays a role when comparing the fitness level of rugby to football. This one is not as clear-cut as many rugby pundits believe.
Fitness level: Rugby +2.
It is clear from these comparisons that each game is difficult in its own way. There is no reason to believe that one is better than the other, and it depends largely on what aspects you like the most to determine if you would like rugby or football. However, the aspect that gives football the edge in this particular comparison, is the amount of skills that the skill-players have in the NFL.
Final score: Football +5.
Ps. South Africa won the 2007 IRB Rugby World Cup. This competition is held every four years (it is similar to the Soccer World Cup) and is the biggest competition in rugby. There have been six Rugby World Cups, and the South African Springboks have won two of them (1995 and 2007). The final was contested between South Africa and England. It's very cool to be the world champions.
If any of you have access to it, try and watch the Tri-Nations rugby match between South Africa and New Zealand on Saturday, it is absolutely huge. It will be on at about 01:00 on Saturday morning in the USA.