Sunday 18 March 2018 / 06:58 AM

Rugby vs. NFL: Can’t We All Just Get Along?

Anyone who has spent any amount of time traveling overseas has learned these two universal truths:

  1. The wash-to-wash lifespan of a pair of underwear quadruples when you leave the country.
  2. Aussies + Yanks + alcohol = an argument about rugby versus American football.

I’ll admit it. I was just as guilty as the rest of them back in the day. I’d argue until I was blue in the face about the virtues of football, and then generally vomit and pass out. But that’s beside the point.

Now that I am old(ish) and wise(r) I see that the dispute is just about as futile as a disagreement can get. We don’t waste our breath hashing out a winner between cake and ice cream. We don’t quibble over steak versus lamb chops. So why do we insist on debating a victor between these two great sports?

Before you read on, I will fully admit that I am an American, and I do prefer football; just as I would expect Australians to prefer rugby. But over the past ten years I have developed an appreciation for the other oblong-balled sport and I think that anyone who believes that it is one-or-the-other in the rugby vs. football debate is missing out. Big time.

The Fallacies


The helmets and pads.

So, I know that what I am about to say is not going to necessarily go over well and that rebuttals will ensue.

Rugby fans love to point at football’s safety equipment as proof positive that football players are weak while rugby players are tough as nails. But the reality is that the pads are there not to reduce pain, but to protect from injury.

Yes, a rugby player is far more likely to have his ear chewed off, get kicked in the nuts or sucker-punched in the face, but for all of the gruesome injuries on the rugby pitch, football players truly are more susceptible to serious damage.

There are a few reasons why this is the case:

  1. In rugby you are only allowed to hit the player who currently has the ball. In football nearly every player is hit on every play of the game.
  2. The fluid nature of rugby leads to more tackles from an angle. The “stop and line-up across from one another” structure of football means more head-on collisions.
  3. Shoulder tackles are illegal in rugby.

But you know what, it doesn’t really matter if you agree or disagree with my assertions. Whether or not you deem them to be necessary, the fact that players wear pads is irrelevant to enjoying the beauty of the game.

Don’t worry, this is not a one-sided article. Americans say stupid-ass things in this debate as well. The most common anti-rugby complaint is the lack of the forward pass.

Football fans well know that many of the most exciting plays are ones where either by design or improvisation, a player pitches the ball to a teammate at the last second to avoid a tackle. So, it doesn’t make any sense that we go wild with admiration when this event happens once or maybe twice during an entire football game, yet we say we are bored watching a sport where pitching the ball at the last second is the entire point!

Don’t Be Lazy. Do Some Research & Learn The Game.


My wife is from New Zealand, and so learning to like rugby was a prerequisite to her acceptance of my engagement proposal. For several years I enjoyed watching the matches with her, but I couldn’t fully get into it since I didn’t understand all of the rules and strategy. She tried to explain, but I still couldn’t put myself in the position of the players, since I had never played the sport as a child.

To make a long story short, one day an Argentinian friend of mine sat me down and finally gave me answers to all the questions I had always wondered about rugby strategy. From that point on watching matches was a completely different experience.

It’s simply not good enough to watch a match or two, mutter to yourself “this looks like football, but it’s not, so I don’t like it”, or vice-versa. If you like one, you will definitely like the other; it is simply a matter of taking an hour or two to learn the basic stratagem of the game.

If you’re serious about learning football, pick up a copy of Madden for your Xbox or Playstation. A Scottish mate of mine was bored stiff watching football until we started playing Madden every week and soon he became a rabid fan and couldn’t wait for Sunday to roll around.

I’m not An Expert, But Here Are Some Of The Core Differences That Confuse/Annoy Fans Of The Opposite Game


As I have already mentioned, I feel that blocking is the main difference that enrages fans of the other game. Whenever I watch football with my wife she screams at the TV “pitch it, pitch it” whenever a running back or receiver goes head-on into a tackle instead of looking for a nearby player to pass the ball off to.

While backwards laterals are legal in football, they simply aren’t done very often because they are too dangerous and often lead to a fumble. Which leads me to my next point:

Field position and possession are tantamount in both sports, as you need both in order to score. But in rugby field position is more important than possession and in football it’s the other way around.

The results of this small yet important difference is that football players frustrate rugby fans as they will almost always protect possession over risking a pitch for more yardage, and football fans are frustrated by rugby players that seemingly kick the ball back to the other team as soon as they get it.

American sports in general have a lot more breaks in the action, and this can be frustrating for international fans. Rugby is more or less non-stop action split up with a halftime rest, and it is true that football players stop to plan out the next play after every single tackle. Not being annoyed by this goes back to what I said about learning the strategy. Once you have a proper understanding of the differences between the hundreds of plays in a team’s playbook, it makes sense why you need time to choose a play, change personnel, and line up accordingly.

This is just a short article touching the surface of a much larger conversation, but I hope that if you’ve tried to watch the “other” game and came away with a yawn, that I’ve piqued your interest enough to hit up Wikipedia and give it another go.

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Commentary Box Sports

Commentary Box Sports invites a forum of truth and uncensored discussion of not only Australia’s greatest pastime, the world's. We offer around the world, up-to-date coverage of the sports we love and live by.

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