Former Saracen and USA lock Hayden Smith made the headlines earlier this year when he announced that not only would he be playing in a new division, but in an entirely new sport. Following a successful trial with the New York Jets, Smith was awarded a place on their preseason roster and began his new journey as an American Football player in the National Football League.
Historically rugby players have made this transition before, but it has been almost solely in order to play as a kicker, a position within American Football designated entirely to the practice of kicking field goals. Smith has chosen to adopt the tight end position, a particularly difficult position to learn as it involves a dual role as both a blocker and a receiver. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Smith did not make the final roster given the enormity of the task that faced him, but the Jets have seen enough potential in him to retain him on their practice squad in the hopes that next season he will have developed his game to the point where he warrants a place on their final 53-man roster.
Whilst the jury is still out on whether this move will be a success or not for Smith, college rugby standout Nate Ebner is also plying his trade in the NFL and could lead the way for other rugby players to make a similar move. A regular starter for the Ohio State college rugby team, Ebner did enough to make NFL scouts sit up and take notice, and was selected in the sixth round of the NFL Draft by the New England Patriots. Despite excelling at age group and sevens rugby for the USA Eagles, Ebner chose to take his chances with American Football, giving up what would have likely been a long career with the full international team.
Although both players have their ties to the United States, and as such both were likely long term fans of the sport, their moves have set a precedent which could lead to more rugby players deciding to give the sport a go. Despite the alarm this may cause for rugby fans, especially those based in the US, it does also open the door to moves in the opposite direction, with former NFL and undrafted college American Football players potentially bringing a new skill set to the game we love.
Misconceptions that American Football is merely an overly complicated form of rugby with pads and helmets have been exaggerated over the years, and there are extensive differences between the two sports. There are several transferable skills though, including catching, avoiding tacklers with the ball in hand, running lines and some aspects of tackling itself. Beyond these skills the real potential they offer is their physicality, exhibiting elite levels of speed and strength.
A perfect example would be Tyler Nielsen of Iowa college. Nielsen went undrafted this year and would have been exactly the kind of player that rugby union could target. He registered a time of 4.74 seconds over the 40-yard dash, and at 6”3 and 17 stone, this kind of pace would be difficult to find in a similar sized rugby counterpart. Due to his position as a linebacker in his sport, Nielsen also prides himself on his ability to tackle, and could have potentially made a real impact as a back row forward.
With the continuing growth of rugby across the pond, seeing the likes of Nielsen giving rugby a go may not be as unlikely a notion in the near future, and Smith and Ebner’s success in the NFL could hasten this development.
As for both Smith and Ebner, I’m sure they will enjoy long and productive careers in the NFL, but if they decide to return to their former professions, the rugby fellowship will eagerly welcome them back into the fold. Who knows, maybe they will bring back an extra trick or two with them.
By Alex Shaw