Rugby vs American football: No contest

Last updated 05:00 05/10/2013
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I've been living in the US for a while now and last Sunday I realised I was beginning to acquire a taste for American football.

The thought snuck up on me while attending a football party in Studio City.

Maybe it was the hot dogs and fresh homemade chilli or the combination of the two with the chilli squirting out the end of the bun. Maybe it was the beer pong taking place in the back yard where one lobs ping pong balls into red plastic cups filled with beer and arranged in a pyramid shape, whose rules I still struggle to understand.

Or maybe it was the fact we were watching the game on a 65 inch 3D LED TV - the largest TV I've seen in my life - that all contributed to the feeling that this was a great way to spend a Sunday.

And that got me thinking. If I had to choose between rugby, New Zealand's national sport, and American football where would my allegiance lie?

It was a stupid question in the end, and because I am not American, it took all of one second to answer. I am a New Zealander and rugby will never have to sit in the shadows of that Johnny-come-lately upstart that is American football when it comes to my affections.

And here's why:

The teams

Rugby is a simple game. Each team has 15 players and a few substitutes. If a player comes off they can't retake the field, unless of course it's a front row forward who needs to come back on to replace another injured front row forward and prop up the scrum.

While not playing, the handful of rugby substitutes sit on a bench on the side of the field watching the game and occasionally trotting off for a few warm-up exercises in case they're called on to play.

In American football you have 11 players on the field, however, you also have three groups of players, called units - an offensive unit, a defensive unit and a special teams unit - within the one team.

When a team is attacking, the offensive unit takes to the field.

When the team is defending it is the defensive unit's turn. And when a team goes to kick the ball or receive a kick the special team's unit are in play.

These three teams in one go some way to explaining why the sidelines of American football games resemble something out of PT Barnum's circus.

There's something more admirable about watching a team emerge exhausted and sometimes bloodied from the rugby field after flogging themselves for a full 80 minutes than watching a special teams unit emerge after a few minutes of actual playing time and who don't even need a shower after.

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The players

On the field and off the field the players from the two sports are like chalk and cheese.

American football players take the field with a mattress strapped to each shoulder and a helmet that makes their heads look even bigger than they already are, the rugby player ploughs on with what God and their mother gave them.

The average professional New Zealand rugby player takes home about NZ$200,000 (US$150,000) each year before tax. The average NFL player earns US$1.5m (NZ$2m), and Drew Brees, the New Orleans quarterback, rakes in a salary of US$40m - not including endorsements.

Rugby player Andrew Hore, an All Black and world cup winner, spends his downtime working on the family farm and when his playing days are numbered that's probably where he'll end up.

In a few years' time, Hore will be like the rest of us, working for a living. Whereas someone like Drew Brees or the Patriots quarterback Tom Brady will never have to lift a finger again.

The pace

The one thing that frustrates me the most while watching American football is its stop-start nature. Every time a player is tackled or a ball is dropped, the two teams seem to take an age to reset, and then do the whole thing all over again... and again... and again.

If you throw in the time-outs, the stoppages so the referees can confer with each other, and the time taken to change your defensive team for an offensive team and so on and so forth, a 60 minute game of American football can take around three hours from start to finish. Three hours for 60 minutes of playing time!

That means the players spend twice as much time not playing the game as they do playing it.

And then there's the peculiar activity of flag throwing.

Just imagine you're the coach and you don't like a particular call the referee has made? Well, simply throw a flag on to the field and the ref will halt the game while he reviews his decision.

Give me rugby any day of the week. Sure there might be the odd stoppage to cart someone off to hospital due to a broken neck or fractured eye socket, and sure those scrums can take a while especially when they keep collapsing, but 80 minutes is 80 minutes and we don't need time-outs thank you very much. Oh, and the referee's decision is final, whether we like it or not.

The schedule

One of the great things about watching rugby is that inevitably the big games fall on a Friday or Saturday night.

If celebrations (New Zealand) or commiserations (Australia and hopefully England) get out of control then you're safe in the knowledge that you have all of Sunday to recover in time for work on Monday.

American Football, on the other hand, want their supporters to suffer. They are sadists. They'll have one game Thursday night, another on Monday night and the rest are played on Sunday. 

The American football season is also rather short. We're blessed with a near continuous diet of rugby from around the globe, while American football runs from September - February.

Global popularity

There's no denying that rugby is a global sport. It might not be as popular as soccer, but the fact that rugby can hold a World Cup every four years where more than one team can compete for the title of world's greatest, means that it is in every sense an international spectacle.

American football is, as its name suggests, a sport played in America, watched mainly by Americans and played solely by Americans minus those interloping foreigners employed by teams purely as kickers. 

There is nothing to get the juices flowing quite like following international sport - watching men and women from your country go up against the best the world has to offer.

The romantic history

The history of rugby goes something like this: In 1823, a young William Webb Ellis was playing a game of soccer at Rugby School, when he got the idea into his head that it would be a much better game if he just picked up the ball and ran with it. And so the game of rugby was born.

Although it's a great story, I'm sure there's more to it than that.

Just as I'm sure William Webb Ellis received a severe beating from the masters at Rugby School for completely disregarding the rules of soccer. But, it is a romantic story none the less.

From what I could discover, American football actually evolved from the game of rugby. I say evolved, but that's probably the wrong word as evolved implies they improved things.

This is how I see the game of American football starting. Some Americans were playing a game of rugby and decided they couldn't be bothered with this passing-the-ball-backwards nonsense and so decided to chuck it any which way.

Then the laziest members of each team decided they were too tired and went off for a nap. That left only 11 not-so-lazy players on each team.

Finally, the remaining players' wives and mothers came out and decided they didn't want their little darlings getting hurt so they strapped mattresses on them, slapped tin bowls on their heads and told them they only had an hour to play as supper was nearly ready. Not wanting to get dirty before supper, scrums were abandoned and substituted for a pushy-shovey type of thing later to be known as the line of scrimmage. And so American football was born.

The end - game over.

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