Australian rugby star Jarryd Hayne has turned down a multi-million dollar contract with an Australian National Rugby League (NRL) team because he wants to join the NFL. News broke this week that Hayne, a Parramatta Eels fullback, would not be signing a $6.75 million contract renewal because he was moving to the United States. After a visit from Reggie Bush and a holiday in Seattle where he toured the Seahawks facilities, the Aussie footballer has decided to give all he has got towards transitioning to the NFL. While he admitted that it would be a long project and a challenging one, he remains confident that he has a shot. Other Australians who transitioned to sport in the United States have also backed him, but there are some who see a lot of negatives in the news.
Hayne has been one of the best rugby players in Australia for years and a mainstay of the Parramatta Eels. His influence and drive was the main reason why the team was anywhere close to being in rugby finals contention this year. He is also one of the main players for the state of New South Wales in the hotly contested yearly competition known as State of Origin. The three game series is played in the middle of the NRL season between the best players from the states of New South Wales and Queensland. This year, New South Wales beat Queensland two games to one, ending an eight year dynasty from the northern state. Hayne had said he would help his team win that contest and help them he did, earning him player of the series. For most people, this was a sign that when the fullback made a promise, it was a sure bet.
That kind of attitude has led many people to be very positive about Hayne’s transition to the NFL. Aussie sports commentator noted that the 26-year-old player needed a new challenge and that this was a good move in that direction. Others have been skeptical about it, noting that Hayne will be trying to break in to the NFL in the middle of the season with absolutely no grounding in the American code. That is a tall order for anyone, but many believe the young Aussie star has the talent and physical ability to make it. At the very least, no one can deny that he has the right attitude for the challenge.
Whatever the challenges are for Jarryd Hayne, his leaving the NRL because he wants to join the NRL leaves some problems in its wake, though not for the player himself. The NRL code has lost three big players this year, all to different football leagues. New Zealander Sonny Bill Williams and British born star Sam Burgess are both leaving for Rugby Union, which has a worldwide platform instead of a merely Australian following. Both played for teams who made it to the playoffs this year and Sam Burgess was an MVP for his team, the South Sydney Rabbitohs, who won the championship. Their departures mean not only a loss of talent, but a loss of big name draws as well.
Some commentators have noted that the Australian rugby league has a limited appeal to fans of the sport. The majority of its teams come from Sydney suburbs, meaning that in certain areas of Australia, it is not very popular. While it has strong appeal to Sydney-siders, outside of Australia it is relatively unknown. This parochialism was exposed in a press conference with Seattle Seahawks’ coach Pete Carroll. The coach was asked about the possibility of signing Hayne to the champion team and he had nothing but good things to say, though he avoided confirming the rumor. Afterwards it was revealed that Carroll had no idea who the Aussie footballer was and had only been told about him minutes before the press conference. This was a blow not only to Hayne, but to the league he comes from. Without a larger fan base and wider appeal, the NRL is doomed to be nothing more than a backwater sporting code.
Despite that, Hayne’s news might be good for the Australian National Rugby League if the fullback does well in America. Athletes playing multiple sports is not uncommon, but the most well-known of those have been Americans playing American sports. Hayne does not have the advantage of being steeped in NFL culture and love of the game. Still, his physical ability and talent are undeniable and he might just become the poster boy for Australian sports if he succeeds. Whether or not the fact that Jarryd Hayne wants to join the NFL pans out and is good for everyone is still to be seen, but for now it is certain that the Australian rugby code has lost one of its biggest stars to opportunity abroad.
Opinion by Lydia Bradbury