In rugby circles (both union and league) in Australasia, the code-swap has become a time-honoured and venerable tradition. As long as the two codes have been around, there have always been individuals who thought that the grass might just be a bit greener on the other side.
Ever since men such as Dally Messenger switched from Union to League on the 'All Golds' tour back in 1907, there has always been a precedent for movement between the two sports. Despite the similarity of the two codes though, there is always an element of risk involved in any switch. For every success story like Brad Thorn, there are an equal number of failures, such as Benji Marshall's ill-fated venture with the Auckland Blues last year, to square out the ledger.
Yet the flow of players between codes continues unabated, if anything it has increased in its intensity. In a professional environment with more television access to different leagues, especially development competitions, the struggle to secure the next generation of players has never been more fierce. NRL scouts frequently scour New Zealand's schoolboy rugby for new talent, while Australian Super Rugby franchises often look to the NRL U-20 competition to bolster its own ranks.
However, this year, the biggest code-swapping story doesn't involve a league/union transfer at all. It is of course, the news of Rugby League player Jarryd Hayne making the switch to the NFL. This situation is without precedent in a number of ways. Not only is Hayne the first league player to sign a contract with an NFL franchise (the San Francisco 49ers), but his story is remarkable given the context of his Rugby League career. As of last year, Hayne could comfortably be considered one of the genuine superstars of Rugby League, both in terms of playing ability and popularity. At 27 years of age he is at the peak of his playing powers, and could conceivably remain at that level for at least four or five more years. Yet he is giving all that up for a shot at making a name for himself in America's most popular sporting competition.
Hayne is by no means a certainty, even to make the 49ers final squad for 2015 where the 90-man offseason roster will gradually be whittled down over the course of the next few months to a final count of 53. Most of the media attention has been focussed on the novelty of Hayne's situation, and the lack of precedent for such a high-profile league player.
However, while Hayne is clearly the most high-profile code-hopper from rugby (union or league) to American Football, he is not the only one to have hankered to gaze on the pastures on the American gridiron.
A number of rugby players, both now and then, have followed the same path Hayne. In the late eighties and early nineties, three rugby players, Richard Tardits (France), Colin Scotts (Australia), and David Dixon (New Zealand) were drafted in the NFL and went on to play professionally. While Scotts' and Tardits' careers were relatively brief, Dixon was highly successful, with the former New Zealand Secondary Schools rep playing Offensive Guard for the Minnesota Vikings for eleven seasons, starting 134 games.
While no convert since then has attained the same level of success, in recent times there has been a resurgence in the number of rugby players seeking to make their mark in the NFL, with varying levels of success. Some, like Hayne, are drawn to the NFL in large part because of the challenge it represents. Australian rugby player Hayden Smith gave up a lucrative contract with Saracens Rugby Club in England in order to try and establish an NFL career. After a year on the practice squad for the New York Jets, Smith made the active roster in 2013 and played in five games over the course of the season.
Others, however, were actively scouted and signed based on their athletic potential. In 2013, NFL scouts from the Indianapolis Colts had their interest piqued by video highlights of Daniel Adongo. Kenyan-born but playing for Counties-Manukau in New Zealand's domestic rugby competition, Adongo displayed the kind of raw athleticism that NFL franchises covet. Later that year, Adongo signed for Indianapolis despite never having played the game before. He is still on the Colts' roster for the upcoming season, although an unfortunate injury derailed his season last year before it even began.
While in New Zealand and Australia, the search for a competitive advantage has driven clubs and franchises to target athletes from rival codes, this same driving force is also pushing NFL franchises to look outside their own sport. A case such as that of Daniel Adongo is a prime example of this phenomenon.
While American Football is the most popular sport in the USA, and the NFL the most lucrative sporting competition in the world, the NFL still has a comparatively small following outside the borders of the USA. As well as the international market providing a huge untapped source of potential athletes, it has even more potential as a source of revenue through its consumers. The NFL is aggressively seeking to expand its international following, most visibly through its scheduling of annual fixtures at Wembley Stadium in London. Also, with the growth and increasing accessibility of high-speed internet around the globe, it is far easier to be able to follow American football outside of the USA than it would have been even ten years ago.
Given the wider context of the NFL, the eagerness of its administration to penetrate new markets, and of its franchises to find new athletes, it would appear that the trend of rugby players such as Jarryd Hayne looking to try their luck in the NFL is one that will only increase with time.
While this trend is likely to continue regardless of Hayne's performance in the NFL, his profile as an elite rugby player may have a considerable influence on the amount of resources NFL teams will put in to scouting on this side of the world. If Hayne fails and goes back to Rugby League after a couple of years, nothing much may change. However, if he does succeed, the rate at which rugby players are targeted by the NFL could increase significantly. Jarryd Hayne may be the first high-profile rugby player to make the switch to the NFL, but depending on his success, he may be opening the door for a brave new world of code-swapping.
Tim Newman lives in Christchurch, New Zealand. He holds an MA in History and is currently working as a ministry intern at Cornerstone Church.
Tim Newman's previous articles may be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/tim-newman.html