This archived article was written by: Devin Latu
The perception outside the United States is that American football is just sissified rugby with thick padding designed to avoid the physical harm associated with the sport. Interestingly, most Americans hold an opposite opinion: that rugby is gridiron (American football) without the pads. Here in the states, rugby is seen as senselessly violent.
The misconceptions between rugby and gridiron are rooted in the belief that gridiron and rugby are similar sports. But that is far from the truth, and anyone who’s ever played both sports would agree. In rugby, the only collision you are involved in is when you have the ball. The other 29 players are there for support. In American football, 21 of the 22 players had better be colliding with someone on every down at full speed. In gridiron, there is collision while blocking. In rugby, that type of blocking is called “obstruction” and is illegal, so there are far more opportunities for player collision in American football.
The styles of tackling are also different. In rugby, the objective is to bring the player to the ground to force a turnover. In gridiron, on the other hand, the purpose of tackling is to not give up a single millimeter of turf to the other team. Rugby is mainly about possession, and gridiron is mainly about territory. This creates two different approaches to tackling.
In rugby, the tackler wants to wrap up around the upper legs, and drag the runner to the ground. Sooner is better than later, but a few feet of gain doesn’t matter much. In gridiron, the tackler prefers a head-on collision, with the helmet connecting to the opponent’s chest; a wrap up around the waist or legs follows, and then a drive backwards as far as the tackler can go. Without a helmet, an American football player would not likely live or walk for long with that style of tackling.
In rugby, a tackler can’t grab around the shoulders or neck (at least when the referee is looking). In gridiron, almost any way of bringing the ball carrier to the ground is legal, as long as the facemask isn’t grabbed. This understanding of the tackling rule sets gridiron far apart from rugby, and changes the amount of violence.
When a rugby player’s tackling is about to happen, he has someone nearby that the ball can be passed to – granted, this is not a certain way to stay away from a tackle, but it moves play away from him. In gridiron, all play ends when and where the ball runner is crushed. Nobody passes the ball in American football but the quarterback.
Having played both sports, I can say that while the tackling is different, one way is no less painful than the other. Crippling injuries or death would happen if someone tried to use American-style tackling in rugby. This doesn’t mean that rugby tackling is “weak.” It’s not, I promise. Within the restrictions of rugby rules it has its own aspect of violence. But I hardly ever felt the kind of impact I always felt in American football, even with the pads.
To those who would put down the comparative violence of American gridiron football, I would say this: you can criticize only when you have played both sports. My sense of it is that ruggers (rugby players) who have never played a down of football can’t really comment on the difference between the two sports.
The truth of the matter is that if a doubtful rugger were to strap on gridiron armor and play just one half of American Football, they would not hold the same opinion of the sport’s violence. Being flattened a dozen or so times by 350-pound beasts tend to make a person a believer.