You are here
This article first appeared at www.pennmutual.com/rugby
By: Mathew Flatow, Principal, Premier Athlete Advisors as told to Mandy Antoniacci
Nope. You didn’t read that incorrectly. While the eyes of football nation focus on the NFL Draft, I will be in Europe scouting rugby players for the NFL.
Please let that sink in for a moment.
On one side of the world, you may read this and think, “what do rucks, mauls, and scrums have to do with the NFL?” Or if you’re on the other side, you may think, “what do fumbles, downs and end zones have to do with rugby?”
And you would be right.
But as a former rugby player turned NFL scout, the thing I can’t stop thinking about is an untapped market.
Here’s how it all began.
Growing up, I played football in middle school. I was a running back, though never successful. As one of the fastest players on the team, it was frustrating to rarely use my speed − I was always following blocks or dodging tacklers. I stuck it out through junior high. Then at 14 years old my father’s company transferred us to Sydney, Australia for a two-year assignment. It was here where I met rugby.I instantly fell in love
Now despite making the school rugby team my first year, transitioning from American football to rugby wasn’t easy. I didn’t have the instincts and experience to play to my potential. I found myself once again the fastest player on the team at a decent size. But I wasn’t ready to make an impact on the field. My coach put me at open-side flanker. And with a number seven on my back, I was instructed to run to the ball as fast as I could and make a mess of the ruck.
It was fun. It was a lot of fun.
I was learning how to handle the set pieces and started to get a feel for the sport. My coach informed me that my future was going to be in the backs, but I had to learn the game first.
The more I learned, the more my passion for the sport became unshakable.
My teammates, on the other hand, were oddly fascinated by American football. They didn’t air many games in Sydney, so American football was this mysterious sport the Australians awkwardly called “gridiron.” Allure aside, there wasn’t much of an appetite in Sydney to play American football. The kids there loved rugby and its fluid nature. When my Australian friends and I would sit down to watch a “gridiron” game late at night, they grew more and more irritated by the endless stoppages, huddles, timeouts and other delays. You see, rugby has a running clock, the ball is constantly in play, and the commercials are limited to, well, just halftime. My teammates struggled to see the appeal of the American sport. And I, agreeing that rugby is the better game, didn’t attempt to convert them.
While similarities between the two sports exist, they are limited. Football is a very technical game where each player has a defined set of responsibilities and is trained to develop a skill set specifically for that role. Though skills change by position in rugby as well, the sport requires generalists…all players need to be able to run, tackle, and pass.
Many football players will never touch the ball in a game. Every rugby player will handle the ball at some point. Half a football team will never attempt a tackle. Every rugby player needs to be able to play defense.
This is what makes rugby such a great game. And as a kid, forget it! Imagine a fast-paced sport where you get to try a little bit of everything as opposed to being stuck on the line or only playing defense – including getting your hands on the ball.
And what kid doesn’t want the ball?
Like many American kids today, my friends and I created a fantasy league. Only ours was different – ours was a fantasy rugby league using NFL players. My team contained some combination of Deion Sanders on the wing, Barry Sanders at scrum half, Randall Cunningham at fly-half and Bruce Smith as a lock. How could any rugby player run with Deion, keep Sanders corralled or avoid being destroyed by Bruce Smith? Our imaginations ran wild. The funny thing is, we never thought to have the inverse debate…how would rugby players do in the NFL?
That is, until Jonah Lomu.
The biggest story in Global Sports.
In 1995, the Rugby World Cup became the biggest story in global sports. It was the first major sporting event to take place in South Africa following the end of apartheid. It was also the first World Cup in which South Africa was allowed to compete.
The historical significance is forever cemented in our minds both politically and socially, thanks to the famous images of Nelson Mandela, the President of South Africa, presenting the Webb Ellis Cup to the South African captain, Francois Pienaar.
But in my mind, a more indelible image remains – a Six-foot, five-inch, 275 pound unknown winger who rampaged through the English defense – and became the most dominating force in the World Cup.
Jonah Lomu was just a rumor – a guy that was mentioned by sportscasters as being “special,” but in a pre-internet era, nobody had seen him play. He was a giant kid of Tongan origin, born in the south of Auckland; the size of a prop, with the speed of a winger - sounds unbelievable. Lomu was evolutionary, and to those who watched him in action, his talent was apparent immediately. If viral videos existed in 1995, every sports fan in the United States would have seen his clips. In the group stage of the Rugby World Club, Lomu scored two tries against the hapless Irish. In the Quarter-Finals, Lomu put one over the line against Scotland. But his breakthrough occurred against a strong English team in the Semi-Finals. Lomu scored four highlight reel tries, including arguably the most famous individual scoring effort of all time: https://youtu.be/FA0R1vMRavI?t=1m6s
Watching this clip decades later, Lomu looks like a modern player who went back in time to face the players of yesteryear. He received a poorly weighted cut-out pass from the scrum half Graeme Bachop off the bounce. From a virtual standstill, Lomu accelerates like a 120-pound sprinter around the opposing winger, cuts infield and evades the cover defender, then literally runs over the fullback. He turned Mike Catt into a doormat, and Lomu was destined to be the star of thousands of posters and magazine covers. As for Catt, he maintained his sense of humor about the incident; and his likeness curled up in the fetal position, also hung on walls around the world.
As kids, our fantasy team now asked a different set of questions, “What position would Lomu play? What team would be the best fit for him? Would he be an All Pro? Hall of Famer?”
Oh, how our teenage imaginations ran wild.
There was even a report that the Dallas Cowboys had offered him a contract, though never substantiated. For the first time, the NFL acknowledged a rugby player was good enough to play in their league.
My love for the game deepened.
I proved to be a much better rugby player than running back. My running style was upright, and I had good ball skills. When I got the ball in rugby, as long as I had space, I ran to the open area and maybe made a cut or two to avoid defenders. If there were no space, I would move the ball along to my teammate out wide or back inside. As a running back, you have no choices. You must run the play whether you have open space or tacklers waiting for you.
I managed to have a great season and led the team in tries scored. On a rugby field, I felt at home.
Then our home changed.
Back to America.
My family and I would eventually leave Australia. I went on to attend the University of Notre Dame – home to the legendary Fighting Irish football team. I continued to play a little bit of rugby in college, but the sport was not something I was going to pursue as an athlete. Fortunately, the internet made it easier to watch my love abroad. But being a student at a historic football school, my interest in football rekindled. I always felt that inside me ached a passionate conflict of these two sports – an internal collision that frankly, didn’t really exist. Until one day.
In 2015 the San Francisco 49ers announced that they had signed a rugby league player out of Sydney, Australia to a contract.
Jarryd Hayne was and is a great rugby league player.
He has the size, speed and ball skills that made him the perfect test candidate for a rugby player to transition to the NFL.
Hayne worked hard, had an excellent pre-season and, against all the odds, managed to make the 49ers opening day roster for the 2015 season. This was an incredible achievement and vindication for all the rugby supporters who believed that their athletes were world class.
Jarryd Hayne had made the transition from professional rugby player to NFL player.
Unlike the game my Australian friends and I played as kids, this wasn’t a fantasy. And unfortunately, Jarryd Hayne’s NFL time was short. Hayne fumbled the ball early and, sadly, often. The 49ers coaching staff was on the hot seat, and they did not have the job security to let Jarryd find himself. Though he would get another chance later in the year after the season was lost for the club, he never bounced back from the early fumbles. Even though he had the size and speed to be an elite kick returner, he did not have the instincts or experience to excel at the NFL level. His NFL career only lasted a year. Instead of attempting to make a roster for the 2016 season, Hayne elected to “retire” from the NFL and return to rugby.
There have been several articles written about why Hayne failed in the NFL. It sounds cruel to label a 27-year-old rookie who made an NFL roster as a failure, but you would be distorting history to say Hayne succeeded. There are two primary reasons for this outcome. The first is that he ran too high and was unable to train himself to get lower to the ground. NFL ball carriers run low to avoid getting hit and to protect the ball. Rugby players run in a more upright position as they need to be prepared to pass the ball while getting tackled. The second reason Hayne did not make an impact in the NFL is due to the same spacing issues that made me a better rugby player than running back. He was accustomed to having room to maneuver and found no such space in the NFL.
Years later, my two passions seeped into my profession when I formed a sports agency. I recalled my time in Australia, my respect for the sport of rugby and for the athletes who played. More importantly, as a scout, I realized the recruiting potential that lives in this untapped market.
As a Principal in Premier Athlete Advisors, a Charlotte, North Carolina-based NFLPA Certified sports agency, we look for novel avenues to recruit talented players, who we then market to NFL teams. As part of an innovative effort to diversify how and where we identify new NFL players, we are recruiting athletes playing in Europe, Mexico and Australia/New Zealand. Initially we intended to scout experienced athletes already playing in professional rugby leagues, but further research revealed a flaw in that strategy.
If Jarryd Hayne, one of the best rugby players in the world could not make it in the NFL, is it realistic that other mid-career rugby players stand a chance? The answer, unfortunately, is probably not.
While it may be too late for a mid-career professional to change sports with any reliable degree of success, a teenage athlete with experience in rugby − and an interest in American football − is still young, learning, and his skills are malleable. A chance to play American football can open incredible doors for a European kid. We recommend that international athletes seek scholarships from smaller colleges and universities eager to offer these scholarships to excellent athletes ready to play American football. Smaller colleges don’t typically recruit superstar high school players and are more willing to teach a fresh young athlete how to play the game of American football and develop the instincts required to play on an NFL team.
Playing on the football team of a smaller school is not only an extraordinary opportunity for rugby players but also a well-established path to the NFL; as every year, dozens of kids from schools with small football programs join the NFL.
It is inarguable that Jarryd Hayne would have had a better chance at success in the NFL if he had played four years of college football. Jarryd Hayne, with four years of training and experience, may have become a great running back, slot receiver and/or punt returner. With this lesson in mind, we encourage international athletes to apply to U.S. colleges and seek football scholarships at smaller schools that lack marquee football programs but can offer a four-year, hands-on lesson in the game of American football. To fuel a potential pipeline, the transition from rugby to the NFL must start young and must incubate in a college program with top coaches and trainers.
Maybe rugby as one of the fastest growing team sports in the US will someday surpass football. Maybe the “American dream” of playing in the NFL won’t just be isolated to the dream of Americans. Or maybe all of this is just the result of one kid’s ultimate fantasy team.
Either way… I’m making it my reality.