Photo: Shutterstock/Jacob Lund

American Football Vs. Rugby: Which Is Tougher?

by N. Chrystine Olson Sep 21, 2009
Matador attempts to put this old international sports debate to rest.
Meet our panelists
  • N. Chrystine Olson: From the perspective of an American football official

Rugby and gridiron compete for my loyalty in September. Tri Nations winds up, American football starts. I attempted to watch both last Saturday, contacting the only sports bar known for showing “the rugby,” hoping one screen could be dedicated to the South Africa / Australia match.

I settled into a lonely booth while every other patron focused on college football. Enjoying a pint in anticipation of the scrum, I got the bad news. They no longer subscribed to the obscure cable channel responsible for rugby. The waiter brought me a free beer, switching on the Alabama / Virginia Tech game.

The sports gods were talking to me: Remember your roots. You’re American. Watch football. I like rugby, but I LOVE football.

  • Lola Akinmade: From the perspective of a former competitive rugby player

“I found it!” I remember one player announcing gleefully as he picked up his lost tooth from a muddy rugby field, a bloody grin across his face.

Having played competitive rugby for over 10 years and choosing to retire after a knee injury, there’s a certain spirit of camaraderie that’s shared by lovers of the sport. From picnicking impromptu with the entire Tongan rugby team at a park in New Zealand, to those evenings spent singing songs in Midwestern Ohio clubhouses, the underlying tone beneath the sport is one of acceptance.

We accept you just the way you are. We have a position you can play, regardless of shape, size, or height.

Criterion 1: Complexity
  • Chrystine’s view: American football 1, Rugby 0

One difference: legal forward pass. Creates exponential combinations of offense. Points can be scored quickly. Equally complex defensive strategies may result in a “pick” (interception), changing game momentum in one spectacular move.

Effective passing and a decent running game make for encyclopedic playbooks. No wonder teams need skyboxes and advanced telecommunications to set plays. Just don’t pull a Belichick and hire a videographer. Bad Coach!

  • Lola’s view: American football 0, Rugby 1

You can’t just throw the ball in when it goes out of bounds, you actually have to form a human tower to win it back. You can’t just run across the finish line, you have to touch the ball to the ground for that mad run through a human obstacle course to count.

Plus, any sport that demands you only pass the ball backwards while running at full speed as a 200+ pound player charges towards you wins the complexity battle.

Criterion 2: Equipment
  • Chrystine’s view: American football 1, Rugby 0

Gridiron players don’t just tackle, they collide. Every player except the quarterback blocks after the ball is snapped. The average lineman runs 40 yards in 5 seconds, weighs 300lbs.

Mandatory safety equipment for one player: helmet, face mask, chin strap, mouth protector, shoulder, tailbone, hip, thigh, and kneepads. Multiply by 100. We win by sheer volume.

  • Lola’s view: American football 0, Rugby 1

Just one piece of equipment recommended: mouthguard! This by default makes rugby players badasses on the field.

Criterion 3: Tackling
  • Chrystine’s view: American football 1, Rugby 1

Call this a draw, because rugby organizes their scoring drives by number of allowed tackles. But all those controlled crashes and an “almost anything goes” philosophy to bring down the runner gives us the win. Emphasis on the “almost” — otherwise I wouldn’t have a job every fall.

  • Lola’s view: American football 1, Rugby 1

So both sports are known for bone-crushing tackles. Can’t argue with that. However, all tackling styles aren’t made equal. Watching a 150-pound lightweight back player take down a 300-pound forward in a skillfully executed tackle without a scratch is a thing of beauty.

Criterion 4: Handling injuries
  • Chrystine’s view: American football 1, Rugby 0

That’s what all those players are for. Bring off the body and put in the second string. No one’s irreplaceable. Besides, the team’s trainer will have all the Hydrocodone, Oxytocin, and industrial-strength Vicodin a damaged player can handle.

  • Lola’s view: American football 0, Rugby 1

In rugby, the game stops for no man. If you’re not springing back up and shaking it off after a few minutes, we only stop to roll you off the field and pull in a substitute.

Criterion 5: Plays and names
  • Chrystine’s view: American football 1, Rugby 0

Hail Mary. Statue of Liberty. Spiritual AND patriotic. Blitz. Bootleg, Shotgun, and Sprint Draw. Reminiscent of a Western starring John Wayne. Classic.

  • Lola’s view: American football 0, Rugby 1

Hooker. Scrum. Maul. Ruck. Flyhalf. I dare you to come up with cooler names for players and plays.

Criterion 6: Sportsmanship
  • Chrystine’s view: American football 0, Rugby 1

Surprise, I’m with my Lola on this one. I’ve dated both American football and rugby players. The starting freshman QB at Virginia Tech was an ass, the All Black’s winger an absolute dream.

But on a less personal note, all the money associated with American football has created some real brats. Can you say “Brett Favre”?

  • Lola’s view: American football 0, Rugby 1

Known worldwide as the “hooligan sport played by gentlemen,” expect a nice meal and tasty adult beverages provided by the hosting team after every game. All grievances end once you get off the pitch and into that clubhouse.

Final score
  • Chrystine’s view: American football 5, Rugby 2

So, rugby isn’t skunked in my tally, gotta give credit where it’s due. Still wish I could have seen at least one Tri Nations match in real time. No offense to available YouTube clips, but it just isn’t the same.

Now I’m off to Capones; the Green Bay Packers open in Lambeau against the Chicago Bears. Shouldn’t have any trouble catching that game.

  • Lola’s view: American football 1, Rugby 6

Hands down, rugby takes home the trophy. 80 minutes of nonstop ruggedness with gasp-inducing tackles and wow-extracting plays.

Plus, any sport that gives you this spectacle instead of perky cheerleaders as pre-game entertainment rules!

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