Former Australian rugby star Jarryd Hayne is making the move to the National Football League. He signed a futures deal with the San Francisco 49ers and hopes to earn a roster spot in 2015.
But can a rugby player transition to the NFL? San Jose Mercury News sports columnist Tim Kawakami sums it up:
Zero opinion until I see him on a football field. How can anyone have an opinion? RT @panchooopc any opinion on Jarryd Hayne ?
— Tim Kawakami (@timkawakami) March 3, 2015
A few rugby players have tried making it in the NFL. Hayne comes from Australian rules football, but less than a handful of those athletes have successfully made the jump to American rules football. Former rugby player Scott Harding was recruited by the University of Hawaii and currently plays Division I football with the Warriors. Chris Bryan made his NFL debut as a punter for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2010 but has since returned to rugby. Other rugby-to-football converts have played non-special teams roles as well. Colin Scotts played defensive end, Richard Tardits was a linebacker and David Dixon played guard for 11 NFL seasons.
The crossover seems intuitive: both sports involve tackling other players. There's one ball, two teams, one winner. There are even a few more specific similarities. For example, both sports have iterations of the touchdown; in rugby, it's called a "try."
There are also definite differences between the two sports. Although they do both involve tackling, rugby players don't wear pads or helmets like NFL players do. Some consider rugby the safer sport because players are taught to tackle without relying on pads to prevent injury. Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll even teaches rugby-style tackling in order to encourage player safety.
The flow of each sport is also different. In rugby there are no timeouts, no forward passes, every player can touch the ball and block, but players can only block or tackle an opponent who possesses the ball. The NFL allows each team three timeouts per half, players must be "eligible" to touch the ball and blocking/obstruction of other players is mostly fair game, regardless of ball possession.
So where does this leave Hayne? His skills as an athlete could translate well: he ran a 4.53 40-yard dash at his Pro Day. And his rugby highlights are reminiscent of an NFL running back.
Hayne trained with former NFL wide receiver Tim Dwight. According to Dwight, Hayne's best chance to break into the 49ers' 53-man roster is through special teams. There are plenty of skills Hayne will likely need to pick up, including how to follow blockers, how to return a punt and even how to read an NFL playbook. He's also a 27-year-old competing with younger athletes who have played American football all their lives.
Michael Jordan made his debut for the Chicago White Sox exactly 20 years ago today and only played one season in the minors before returning to basketball. But there are other athletes (Deion Sanders, Bo Jackson) who have dominated playing two different sports. Only time will tell if Hayne can be a dual-sport success story or a dual-sport flop.