A lot of Rugby League players are about to make a very big mistake: Believing they can follow in Jarryd Hayne's footsteps to the NFL. The shift hasn't happened yet, and no players have committed -- but it's coming. Assumptions about whether they can make the jump will be fueled by financial gains, possible glory and above all else, hubris. Hayne left the NRL in Australia for the right reasons. We're about to see a lot of players leave for the wrong ones.
To understand the impact of Hayne's switch we first need to understand the perception of the NFL in rugby-playing nations. Being an NFL fan in Australia means hearing barbs thrown at the sport in one of three well-worn camps: The players are fat, they're not tough enough to play without pads and they get dozens of 30 second rests during the game. The nuance is lost on the average Rugby League-loving fan, and so too it will be lost on a lot of players trying to make the switch.
This runs headfirst into a larger phenomenon most Australians would rather pretend doesn't exist: Seeking acceptance from the USA. There's a dichotomy of disdain for perceived cultural imperialism butting up against this notion that gaining success in the United States means you've "made it." This applies to chefs, actors, musicians and of course athletes. Hayne is that dream made manifest, and it's one other players will seek too.
Hayne has set the baseline for what a Rugby League player needs to be to make it in the NFL. It's one hell of a baseline. An eight-time Dally M recipient (twice as Player of the Year), a Four Nations and World Cup Champion, and one of the best players in all of Rugby League. A player assuming they can switch first needs to answer a simple question: "Am I as good as Jarryd Hayne?" The answer will be no.
Arguments will be made for Sonny Bill Williams or Greg Inglis, both amazing athletes in their own right. Perhaps even more gifted at Rugby League than Hayne was, but neither have the body types that create a successful NFL running back. This is part of the problem too.
The NFL Is Back
The NFL Is Back
If we distill a Rugby League player and an NFL player into their parts we have two very different looking tools. The former is a Swiss army knife, able to do a little bit of everything. The latter is a scalpel, refined and machined to micron-level precision. Neither is better than the other in isolation, they simply serve different purposes. You'd never want to perform surgery with a Swiss army knife, nor would you want a scalpel to open a can of beans while camping. The key is finding as many characteristics that are similar enough to translate between those tools, and Hayne's pocket knife was the sharpest Rugby League has ever seen -- that's why it worked.
Outside of punters or kickers there are really only two positions where we'll ever see a Rugby League player make an impact: PR/KR and Running Back. That's it. We'll never see a prop become a linebacker, or a winger play wide receiver. Body types are too different, and the speed of the NFL would blind players with Jarryd Hayne's size. The former Parramatta Eels' fullback was an anomaly. A player who never looked like he belonged in the NRL. A man who made things look too easy. Hayne's size wasn't unheard of in league, but that frame being able to produce his speed was. There were times he looked like he was playing a different sport than everyone else on the field -- it turns out he was.
The kicker to all this is an ethereal concept that can't be quantified in seconds or bench press reps, it's vision -- and something Hayne has in spades. His style in league was free-form improved jazz as he danced around defenders and showed patience in waiting for a hole to open. He was a master of creating something out of nothing, and then used his speed to explode through gaps. I questioned whether this style could adapt to the rigid structure of the NFL where he would need to follow plays quickly, but Hayne was able to show enough of his playmaking flair during punt returns, while showing he had the vision to be a darn good runner out of the backfield.
Hayne showed that he was more than a straight line speedster like fellow lauded rugby player Carlin Isles. Track athletes have tried to make the jump to the NFL and largely failed, but Hayne is something different. He's elusive in a way few players are, and with the ball in his hands it seems like the game slows down around him -- Hayne is simply processing his surroundings at a faster rate. In order for another Rugby League player to succeed they'll need to have Hayne's size, speed and vision -- something that is utterly impossible to replicate.
Why then will players try to make the jump? Money. The highest-paid player in the NRL is Cameron Smith, and he makes just over $1 million a year. Obtaining a position on the back-end of an NFL roster is paying Hayne $435,000 this year, and if he earns a second contract he'll be making far more than the highest-paid player in his former sport. More important than the money is the challenge. The reason Hayne switched in the first place. The endorsement deals and what he'll become as Australia's best-known NFL player remain to be seen.
That's what's up for grabs for Rugby League players making the jump. America provides them with a chance to earn that money for a few touches in 16 games, not playing a full 80 minutes each week over a 26-game season. Hayne will spark a slew of talented players to try their hands at the NFL, and there will be a lot of horror stories.
Think of this like a PSA for all the amazing Rugby League players out there. Guys, don't quit your day jobs. Hopefully you don't share in the well-worn laziness of assuming the NFL is for players who aren't "tough enough" to play without pads, or think because linemen are large they're also unathletic. There is nothing more difficult in team sports than becoming a player in the NFL. Jarryd Hayne's rise to prominence has been amazing to see and it's fine to admire the Hayne Plane from afar -- just don't think you can use its slipstream to coast into one of the most difficult games on the planet.
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