The San Francisco 49ers officially signed Jarryd Hayne to a three-year contract on Tuesday, bringing their latest project from across the ocean. Hayne played for National Rugby League from 2006 to 2014, before retiring to pursue a career in the NFL.
Hayne and National Rugby League are both relatively unknown products for most Americans. Fortunately there are people who actually know a thing or two about this! I was contacted by CJ Smith, an American-Australian who has followed Hayne throughout his career, and is also an avid NFL fan. Back in December, when word first got out about Hayne meeting with the 49ers, I mentioned that any rugby fans were welcome to contact me to discuss the game and Hayne.
CJ replied, and provided some extensive detail on the game, and on Hayne. I have taken his thoughts and made some minor changes for organizational purposes, but otherwise, here is what CJ had to say.
First of all, while you may not realize this as the sport isn't very popular in America, Jarryd DOES NOT play Rugby. Here just saying 'Rugby' refers to the game 'Rugby Union', a 15 man sport with a multitude of complex rules and a lot more kicking back and forth. Jarryd plays 'Rugby League', which in a way, is like a mix between Football and Rugby Union.
In Rugby League, there are 13 players on the field, and 4 bench players. Unlike Rugby Union, a player in Rugby League may re enter the game after he is substituted off, while Rugby Union players can not return to the field once they come off. Rugby League is also a much faster game, where the team has 6 tackles to progress down the field to score (just like how NFL players have 4 downs to gain 10 yards). This means that Rugby League players require a whole different style of athleticism, with some players who play the position of prop standing over 6'5 and 280lbs but having quite low body fat. A prop in Rugby Union is most typically shorter (very rarely over 6'2) and stocky.
Here is a video that can also help explain the game. It is from an English viewpoint and Rugby Union is a much more world wide game, but it still provides answers to some common questions. Australia and New Zealand are seen as the world's two best Rugby League teams, but in Rugby Union, there are three to eight countries who are all seen as world class.
Jarryd Hayne's background
Jarryd is not only seen as one of the best current Rugby League players in the world, but also one of the most dynamic of all time. He is very well respected in the sport for his loyalty, as he has only ever played for one professional team (the Parramatta Eels) even though that team was never particularly very good and having the opportunity to play for almost any club in the sport. His skills with the ball in hand are incredibly unique and gifted, but he is also a very accomplished defender, which is something that may surprise fans the first time he ever tackles someone.
While he has incredible potential as a returner, his style of running will have to change completely to play running back, as NRL players typically run very upright, leaving them susceptible to leg tackles in the NFL. However, he will bring a completely different style of agility to the NFL, and it will take a lot of opponents by surprise.
Jarryd is an incredibly respected young man in Australia, and is a role model for many young men who dream about playing in the NFL from this country, which as you know, is a very rare thing. I ask that if you write about him in the future, you make sure that you identify him as a Rugby League player, not just a Rugby player, as this would like us saying 'Football player' about an American soccer player. What he has accomplished in our country is incredible for someone of his age, and will hopefully open the door to Americans joining our sport over here. However this all starts with people like yourself, respected sports journalists, identifying and acknowledging the difference between Rugby players and Rugby League players so that America's awareness and exposure to the sport can grow.
It will be interesting to see Jarryd back fielding kicks, because be has a lot of transferable skills from our sport that will help him in that position. He played Fullback in Rugby League, a position where he had to field huge 'bombs' (what you call a punt), and he was known for being incredibly skillful in that area of the game, only misjudging or dropping a very small number of kicks during his illustrious career.
I'm very intrigued to see him receive some training in kick and punt return, as one of the greatest differences between our two sports is the aspect of blocking, because in Rugby League it is strictly disallowed to block any players, so all of the try's (touchdowns) that Jarryd has scored in his career have been without blockers in front of him. Obviously teaching him how to read blocks will be a challenge, especially on punts where he'll have far less time between the catch of the ball and when players are in his face to tackle him, but if he can learn how to do that, it will be very exciting for anyone who enjoys dynamic return men.
Another reason I feel that he may succeed as a returner is because Jarryd has a very unique style of agility, even for our sport. When he steps (jukes) he does it with so much power and strength that he can actually gain speed! Being from the west coast, you have been exposed to some incredibly agile athletes from college football and the NFL, but where Jarryd separates himself there is that he has that incredible agility, but the size to also break tackles as he is performing any of these moves. Let's compare him to former Oregon and current Kansas City Chiefs player De'Anthony Thomas, who seems to not lose any speed when making moves. This is a similar skill set Jarryd has, and while he may not have that same incredible speed as De'Anthony, he will in power.
A position that I think hasn't been brought up for him is putting him in the slot on offense and using him in a role similar to Percy Harvin. With the right coach to identify his skill set, and how to get him with the ball in space, this could actually be the role he makes his name in. Like you mentioned he is 6'2" and over 220lbs, so he has the size to play on offense, but his learning of the offense would be an obstacle in that area. But if a team were to bring him in soon and start to develop him and teach him the sport now, then he may be ready just in time for next season.