The Differences Between Football (Soccer) and Rugby

The other day I found myself watching rugby clips on YouTube after I ran into a former classmate that was a collegiate rugby coach. Here in United States, we don’t watch see much rugby. I didn’t know the rules, so I did some research. At first glance, I felt like rugby was a tackling version of football.

However, there are many differences between them. Check out the table below.

Game Length2 halves – 45 minutes 2 halves – 40 minutes
Scoring1 point1-5 points
BallSphereOval or Egg-shaped
Use of HandsNo (ex keeper)Yes
Field(l) 100-110m x (w) 64-75m(l) 94-100m x (w) 70m
Fan Base4,000,000,000500,000,000
TacklingSlide tacklingBody tackling

To no surprise, these sports evolved from a similar history in the United Kingdom over 150 years ago. Keep reading as we dig a bit deeper into the differences of these amazing sports.

A Deeper Dive

We will take a few of the larger categories and break them down a bit further.

I’ll interchange the word soccer and football throughout this article.


In soccer, a team receives one point when the ball passes completely over the goal line between two upright goal posts. This can happen during game play or during a penalty kick. There is no way for a player to score more than one point. As a result, football games are low scoring compared to rugby.

A rugby player has plenty of options to score. He or she can receive between one and five points. A try is most amount of points and is like a touchdown in American football. A try is scored when a player grounds the ball with downward pressure over the opponents’ goal line.

After a try is scored, the scoring team can attempt to kick the ball between the crossbar and two posts. This is called a conversion.

If a penalty is called, the receiving team can choose to kick at goal. Penalties are called when a defender interferes with the offense chance at a try.

During open play, any player can drop the ball onto the ground and kicking it on a half-volley or as the ball is rising from the ground on a bounce. Three points are awarded if kick goes through the crossbar. This is a called a drop goal.

There are two different leagues: Rugby League and Rugby Union. Each organization that scores the game differently.

Rugby LeagueRugby Union
Drop Kick 13

Use of Hands and Feet

No player in soccer is permitted to use their hands on the playing field except the goalkeeper. If any player touches the ball intentionally, the opposing team receives an indirect free penalty kick unless the penalty is committed within the penalty area. This is a huge mistake as the opposing team will receive a direct free penalty kick. Your teammates will not be very happy!

Now the goalkeeper gets special treatment, but there are rules to follow. If goalkeeper touches the ball outside of his designated area, an indirect free kick is awarded to the opposing team.  

Interested in learning more? Check out this article on the rules of a goalkeeper.

A football player uses their feet, hence the name football. Dribbling, passing, and volleying with their feet or any other body part outside of the arm is acceptable.

The one exception to this rule is throw-ins. When a ball goes out of bounds, the opposing team is awarded a throw-in. We will touch more on that later in the article.

In rugby, players use their hands or feet to advance the ball down field. The use of hands is vital for any team in rugby. Players run with the ball in their hands, can kick the ball to players or to themselves to help score points. Given the shape in ball and structure of the game, dribbling is not practiced.


Passing is widely acceptable in soccer. Forward or backwards passing is acceptable. There is one exception. If an attacking player (player with a ball) passes to a teammate that is behind the last defensive player. This is called offsides. Otherwise, players have freedom to pass forward or backwards.

Rugby has a few more limitations. Forward passing when the ball is in the player’s hands isn’t allowed. It is like American football past the line of scrimmage. A pass must be lateral pass, meaning a pass that is parallel to or away from the opponent’s goal line. If a forward pass takes place, a penalty kick can be awarded. This depends on the situation. In some instances, a scrum takes place. More on that later.

However, a rugby player can kick a ball forward by kicking into space so a teammate can run onto the ball or kick the ball out wide to teammates. Any player that is ahead of the kicked ball at the time of the kick is not allowed to play the ball until they move behind the kicker or played onsite by a teammate.


Soccer players tackle to regain possession of the ball from the opponent. If the player is unsuccessful and tackle the player without impacting the ball, a penalty is called. If a player tackles another player but touches the ball first, the ball is free for either team to play.

Rugby is a violent and physical game. Body tackles are normal, where players bring each other to the ground. Both the tackler and player with the ball must release the ball and place on the ground. Both teams have a chance to get possession of the ball. At this point, both teams try to push opposing players away. This is called a ruck. Neither players engaged in the ruck can touch the ball. Players not in the ruck can come to regain possession of the ball.

Tackling is only allowed if a player has possession of the ball in both sports.


Scrums are unique to rugby. A scrum is a way to restart play after a minor penalty such as a forward pass or knocked forward pass. Each team involves eight players consisting of three rows of interlocked teammates pushing against the opposing team’s pack.

The ball is fed in between the two teams and they compete for the ball to win possession.  

Out of Bounds

When a ball is touched out of play, the last team to touch the ball loses possession. The opposing team is awarded a throw-in. A player goes to the sideline and throws the ball into play to restart. Once the ball is thrown into play, either team can play the ball.

In rugby, things happen a bit differently but very similar conceptually. When a player carries or tackled out of play or into touch, their team loses possession. The opposing team is awarded the throw-in to a lineout. Both teams form a line-out past the five meter line and no more than fifteen meter in from the touchline. Each team must be at least a meter away from each other. The thrower must throw the ball straight to restart play. It is a bit difficult to describe. Watch the video below to get a better idea.

How Are They Similar?


Football (soccer) is played with cleats and shin guards. Goalkeepers take a bit more of a beating and require some more equipment than the rest of the pack. Gloves, padded undershirts and compression shorts can used by keepers to protect themselves against high speed shots on goal.

Rugby doesn’t require any much equipment outside of their jersey, cleats, and shorts, but some players decide to protect themselves a bit more than others. Most players wear a mouthguard since tackling can be a bit tough. Some use a scrum cap to protect their ears. No one wants cauliflower ears!

When you look at a soccer and rugby player, they wear very similar gear: jersey, cleats, and knee-high socks. Depends on the player but they can be indistinguishable.

Constant Play

Football and rugby do not stop until halftime. Time moves whether the ball is out of bounds or not. Neither have timeouts. Substitutions are allowed by each team. In international games, the referee will stop the clock for rugby games. Otherwise, the game will keep on rolling.


Both games use yellow and red cards. This is a way for a referee to notify everyone of a serious penalty. If a player receives two yellow cards in the same game, this is the same as a red card. A red card means the player must leave the field for the remainder of the game.


Before there were any codes to football and rugby, they shared a similar past. Centuries before in the Middle Ages, neighboring towns would play each other involving an unlimited amount of people on each team. Opposing townspeople would fight and try to move the ball to the appropriate marker at the end of each town. Games were violent and people died as a result. There were many attempts to ban this game over the centuries.

Over time, people wanted a system of rules and fair play. Modern-soccer was established in 1863. In October of that year, eleven representatives of the clubs and schools met to set up the fundamentals rules to control matches. The Football Association was formed. In December 1863, the Rugby Association and Association Football decided to go on different paths. The rest was history.

FLASH SALE: Passing & Receving eBook

The Passing & Receiving eBook makes coaching and planning your next coaching session ridiculously simple. It’s a true straight-forward guide for the rest of us. Print it and put it in your practice folder and you’ll have the perfect dummy-proof reference!

Recent Posts