The casual observer, watching their first rugby game, will be struck by the differences between rugby and football. The most obvious being the lack of equipment on the rugby players. No hard helmet or pads, just a few players wearing soft neoprene head gear and shoulder pads.
The mode of play is also very different. Without blocking or forward passes, rugby players advance the ball by lateral passes until a gap in the opponent’s defense allows a runner with the ball to penetrate.
If the ball carrier is tackled the whistle won’t blow and the action doesn’t stop. Instead, the ball must be released and players from both teams compete to win the ball and continue play. Without a limit by downs a skillful team will, in a continuous series of possession, move the ball laterally and downfield until they get a player into the end zone to score by grounding the ball.
The restarts in rugby will be puzzling at first. Lineouts, scrums and a variety of kicks don’t have exact equivalences in football but they all serve a common purpose of putting the ball back in play following an infringement of the rules or the ball going out-of-bounds.
What may escape the eye of the casual observer, but would be apparent to the football coach, is how similar the two games are in principle. Seeing, creating, preserving and using space is a key element of both. In football blockers create space by clearing out the would-be tacklers. In rugby, with no blockers in front, the ball carrier creates space by committing the defender to tackle and passing off the ball to the next runner in support.
Deception, overloading and mismatches are as much a feature of rugby as they are of football. Decoy runs, dummy passes and evasive running are all key factors of both sports. And the defensive elements, whether playing zone or man-to-man, require the same comprehension, focus and teamwork to shut down space and limit the attacking options.
Tackling is the one aspect that will seem most familiar but there are important differences. Without the benefit of a helmet and hard padding the rugby player must always use correct technique if the tackle is to be safe and effective. Without platooning, and ball possession switching back and forth, all players must learn to be effective tacklers and be able to react spontaneously as a team.
Clearly, the attributes of the football player, such as superior strength, speed and agility will be advantageous to the rugby player. So is “game sense” -- that innate ability to understand the flow of the game and stay one step ahead of the opponents. Without stoppages in play that allow central leadership, such as a coach or captain, to direct play every rugby player must be capable of reading the situation and reacting accordingly. Game smarts are possibly the most valuable asset of the rugby player that will transfer to football, even though the game is played in such a different manner.
Set plays in rugby are less intricate than football and don’t demand the precision in execution or the exacting specialization of position. Instead, rugby requires a more general set of skills by all players, with some specialization, and the mental flexibility to respond to the dynamic nature of the game.
Watching a game of rugby the astute observer will be able to detect the origins of football. Back in the 1870s the first “football games” played at American colleges were actually rugby games. This was before Walter Camp took to the game and started the transformation of rugby into the game of football. Over that same time period rugby also has changed to become the fast paced, dynamic game of modern times.