Football or Rugby: Whose Players are Tougher?

Could football players last 80 minutes in a rugby match? The great debate continues

What's tougher: Rugby or American football?
What's tougher: Rugby or American football? Photo credit: Tim Clayton / 101010 / Corbis

Super Bowl Sunday is coming up, and I’ve been asking local pubs here on the South Island of New Zealand if one might be able to catch the world’s biggest game on television.

But the national sport of New Zealand is rugby, and the Super Bowl is not an event that many locals make bowls of guacamole and invite friends over for. It sounds like football fans in Kiwi land could be hard-pressed to find venues showing the match. In the seaside town of Kaikoura, one bartender told me he didn’t plan on airing the game and said I’d probably be the only person in town looking to watch the Super Bowl. The bar manager at Strawberry Tree, a worn and salty old watering hole on Kaikoura’s main and only drag, said that American football is too slow-paced to watch on TV.

“Rugby is 80 minutes nonstop,” said Stephen Horton, who also plays lock and open-side on Kaikoura’s regional team. “And in football, you have two lines of players that switch at every play, right?”

Right—defense and offense. So, what are you saying, I asked Stephen—that football players are padded, coddled softies? Do you think they’re less durable than rugby players?

“Oh, yeah!” he laughed. “Those guys wouldn’t last 80 minutes in a rugby match!”

Andrew and I raised our beers to that, noting to Stephen that the big-bellied beasts called linemen who may, by some stroke of chance, find the ball in their hands and run it in for an 80-yard touchdown can require oxygen masks in order to recover. This got Stephen and another Kiwi at the bar laughing—and certainly didn’t win toughness points for American footballers.

And so our conversation quickly took the form of one of the endless topics in sports talk: Are rugby players as tough as football players? Consider this quote I found recently on an online discussion: “NFL players are bigger, stonger (sic), faster. Almost all of them have college educations. The average NFL player could pick up the average Super 14 player, turn him upside down, and shake him like a piggy bank.”

But Stephen, like many New Zealanders, feels otherwise. “I definitely think rugby is harder,” he said, “but football looks more fun. You wear all that padding and can hit each other as hard as you want. You get hurt in rugby. I’ve had three broken collar bones and been knocked out three times.”

Rugby players are trained gentlemen, too. In New Zealand, they start playing at as young as four years of age, and even in adult leagues, swearing is forbidden during practice and “joking around,” Stephen explained, is curtailed by the coaches. Nor do players perform sometimes classless celebrations after scores or victories, as we see in the NFL.

Later in the week, in Blenheim, I stopped at the Moa Brewing Company for a beer—and to egg on more conversation. Here I met Michael Miller, an American living in New Zealand and working with the brewery. In eight months here Michael has picked up on the subtleties of rugby that American football lacks. “I don’t mean to be derogatory toward anyone, but rugby is more intellectual,” he said, explaining that, since they lack protective gear, the players must combat each other with exceptional technique. He likens the sport to “guerrilla warfare,” whereas the face-off-and-charge approach of the NFL is more “like Civil War” battle style. “Rugby can also be quite brutal,” Michael said, “but it’s also more beautiful and elegant.” He noted that rugby players must be skilled in tackling, running and handling the ball—all aspects of the game—whereas football players are specialized to certain techniques, making them less rounded as tactical athletes.

Having seen both games up close, Michael also feels that American football, much more than rugby, “has been evolved for commercialization and television.” Which explains the three-hour games, endless breaks and timeouts and the huge advertising campaigns that climax on Super Bowl day.

This T-shirt, spotted in a Kaikoura gift shop, reflects a common Kiwi impression of American footballers: They're wimps.
This T-shirt, spotted in a Kaikoura gift shop, reflects a common Kiwi impression of American footballers: They're wimps.

And I asked that pivotal question: Of rugby players and NFL footballer, who’s tougher?

“It would have to be the rugby guys,” he said. “You have to run nonstop. You can’t be a huge tuna-fish linebacker and play rugby.”

Back in Kaikoura, I asked Stephen if he’d be watching the Super Bowl, but no: He’d rather be on the local pitch playing some rugby or diving for paua or lobster off the beach. And me? If my hometown 49ers had won their way into the battle, I’d be hunting for a television in Christchurch—but I think I’ll go fly fishing.

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.