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What Is The Difference Between American Football, Rugby and Australian Rules Football?

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American football, rugby and Australian rules football are three sports which look similar at first glance but are completely different. The goal in these sports is by passing a ball, running, evading opposite players and protecting your own team to pass the line at the end of the opposing team's field or kick it through a goal post. The three sports require great physical training as well as well-thought tactics.

A Bit About The Sports

Rugby union, or simply rugby is a sport that originates from the middle of the 19th century. The name rugby comes from the name of the school in the town of Rugby, Warwickshire, where William Ellis invented the sport. Later his name was used for the name of the trophy that is presented to the winners of the Rugby world cup.

A Professional American Football Player With Full EquipmentAmerican football evolved from rugby and football (or soccer like it's more commonly known there). The first recorded game was on November 6, 1889, when two college teams played a game which used rules a lot like rugby. Later these rules were changed – a different number of players was chosen, as well as some other additions like the shape and size of the ball. American football is the most popular sport in the USA and the Super Bowl, the annual football championship final, is one of the most popular sport-based events in the world, seen by more than 100 million people every year.

Australian rules football or like the Australians like to call it “the footy” resembles rugby in many aspects. There are no records of the first game but the first organisation to set ground rules was established in Melbourne in 1859. Unlike the other two sports, the footy is not a full contact sport and heavy tackling is prohibited. Instead, the sport relies on aspects such as speed and accurate shooting, passing

The Rugby, American Football and Australian Rules Football Around the World

Rugby is widely spread not only in the UK, Australia and New Zealand, but also in South America in Argentina, where a rugby union was founded in 1899. In Asia countries such as India, Japan, South Korea and China also have developed rugby leagues. The sport is also popular in South Africa, where more than one million people watched the Rugby World Cup held in 1995. In Europe there are more than 30 operating rugby unions. In countries such as Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece the sport is gaining popularity.  

Just to get you the idea of how fierce the competition gets in international rugby, we show you this. This is the Haka. The Haka is an ancient war cry from the Maori people from New Zealand. It is used by the New Zealand All Blacks to challenge the opposing team.  


American football is not as widely spread as rugby outside of the United States. One of the main reasons for that are the great costs of the equipment used to protect the player. However, in Europe there was an active tournament known as NFL Europa which operated from 1995 to 2007 with several teams from Germany, France and the Netherlands.

The Australian football is the most popular sport in Australia but it is also developed in countries such as Canada, Denmark, Great Britain, Japan and New Zealand. Even though the sport is not very developed outside Australia, it is still gaining popularity in Europe. Ireland has the most well-developed league and many Irish players play for professional Australian teams.

The Actual Differences

The Fields

                       An Australian Rules Football Field

As rugby and American football use similar-sized rectangle-shaped pitches, the Australian football field is oval. It has no fixed dimensions but the typical one is between 130 and 180 metres long and 110 to 150 meters across. A typical rugby union pitch is around 100 meters long and 70 meters wide, when an American football one is 90 meters long and 50 meters across. Many stadiums in the US have been equipped with a carpet-like flooring - artificial turf. It has its advantages because it's easier to clean and maintain, a lot like doing the tile cleaning at home.

The Ball

The ball in the three sports has a similar prolonged shape. There are certain rules about the size and the weight of the ball in the different sports. The American football ball uses a modified rugby ball design in order to be easier to throw. Its length is around 27 cm from tip to tip and the thing it differs the others - the weight - 400 grams. The rugby ball is 29 centimetres long and around 450 to 460 grams in weight. However, it seems bulkier because of its rounder edges. The AFL ball uses a ball which has the same characteristics as the rugby ball. The difference is that it is rounder in shape.

American Football, Rugby and Australian Rules Football Balls** The Australian rules football has a specific regulation about the colour of the ball - during the night it must be yellow and during the day - red.

The Rules

The rules of the rugby and the American football have many similarities. The reason is because the second sport's rules were inspired by the first one's. There are a few notable differences, though. In rugby there are 15 players and only 7 substitutions and in American football there are 11 players with unlimited substitutions. In the beginning of a game or a move, the two opposing teams form a line in the middle of the pitch.

                       A Rugby Ball Set For Kick-off

After the first whistle of the referee it's pretty much like a field of battle. Both teams' goal is to get the ball to the opponents touch line (called a “touchdown” in American football and a “try” in rugby) or kick the ball through goal posts. There are players, who have offensive assignments and players who have to defend both their touch line and other players as they attack.

The Australian football's rules completely differ from the other two. As said in the beginning of the article - this is not a full contact sport and any severe tackles are prohibited. The other differences include the player count. Many people ask "How many players are there in an AFL team?" - 18 (with 3 substitutions).  The most important difference between a rugby union game, an American football game and Aussie rules is the way the ball is passed - without throwing it. Instead, the ball is punched to the teammates. Scoring in Aussie rules is done by kicking the ball through four goal posts, unlike in the other two sports where there are only two.

The Players

                             A Rugby Player Tackles Another One                                             

Another interesting comparison is the average size and weight difference between the players. Depending on the position, the size also varies. The centres and wing players are usually smaller in weight and height and run faster. On the other side you have the back defences. These guys are sometimes as heavy as 160 kilograms and 195 centimetres in height, to stop opponents from scoring.

                                          Spectacular Marking - A Technique Used in Aussie Rules To Catch The Ball

The average Aussie rules player size is generally smaller than the other two sports and with their average of 178.8 centimetres. "Compared to rugby or American football we are smaller." admits  Roger Greendale, a professional AFL player and a cleaner for one of Melbourne's top tile and grout cleaning company. "However, playing Aussie rules is a lot more difficult. You need to stay focused  at all time. It's not like my old job at the tile cleaning company, that's for sure! "

In Conclusion

American football, rugby and Australian rules football are  three sports which don't really need an introduction. If you want to play them on a professional level, bear in mind that a real player is an athlete. An athlete who always pushes his limits and even further. Doesn't matter if you're a librarian, working for a tile cleaning service or something entirely unrelated. If you never back down you can  achieve your goal!

Another very important thing is safety. Even though, these sports are popular among millions or even billions of people around the world, there are also played by professionals using the right set of equipment and skills. Playing them on a competitive level without the experience can be dangerous and can lead to physical traumas. So, be careful when playing the American football, the rugby or the Aussie rules!

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