Why Jarryd Hayne’s Departure Is Good for Rugby League
Australian Rugby League star, Jarryd Hayne, today made the shock announcement that he would be leaving the NRL to pursue a career in America’s National Football League. Initially, the phenomenal media response may seem overblown, but the enormity of this move cannot be underestimated. To Rugby League fans, Hayne, of course, needs no introduction. To outsiders, Hayne could best be described as a supremely talented athlete near the peak of his powers, a household name in Australia and well on his way to Rugby League greatness.
Hayne has been somewhat of an enigma in his glittering career to date. Blessed with a level of innate ability that most could only dream of, the Parramatta custodian has, at times, lacked consistency – oscillating between dizzying brilliance and inexplicable mediocrity. In 2009, Hayne produced one of the most memorable seasons in Rugby League history, delivering 6 consecutive man-of-the-match performances in the latter half of the season and carrying the Eels to an unlikely grand final appearance. This led journalists and fans alike to ponder just how good this man might become, with many suggesting he would retire as one of the greatest players the game has seen. In the intervening years, Hayne struggled to reproduce such dazzling form; however, in 2014, he returned to his devastating best, delivering numerous match-winning displays for the Parramatta Eels, securing a second Dally M medal and reclaiming his position amongst rugby league’s elite.
And now, on the verge of fulfilling his towering potential, Hayne is setting sail for American shores.
Surely, this cannot be good for Rugby League.
Many supporters will reactively lament the departure of Hayne, particularly on the back of losing the likes of Sonny Bill Williams, Sam Burgess, Israel Folau and Karmichael Hunt to rival codes in recent years. This unprecedented exodus of talent, generally speaking, is a major issue for the game. However, in the case of Hayne, the NRL, and Rugby League in general, has just received an incredible gift – an ‘in’ to the American market.
Rugby League has been gradually growing in USA over the past two decades, but the catalyst for rapid expansion has never been available. Jarryd Hayne now holds this key. For a player of his talent, at the peak of his powers, to attempt this transition is clearly incredibly brave. But if he pulls it off, it could be a defining moment in Rugby League history. It’s not hyperbole to say that a successful transition would bring Rugby League to the attention of millions.
And while it’s obviously desirable for the NRL to have the best players and athletes involved in its game, in many ways, code-swappers are our greatest advertisement. And Hayne could become the greatest of them all.
Make no mistake, Hayne has the ability. With the possible exception of Greg Inglis, no Rugby League athlete is better equipped for the challenge. Hayne’s rare blend of size, power, acceleration and footwork places him amongst the elite athletes in world Rugby (either code). Of course, there are a multitude of questions hanging over his move: Has he left it too late? Is he too old? Will he have enough time to make the transition? Can he learn the intricacies of American Football quickly enough to be effective? Will he be physically capable (American Football is almost exclusively a power-sport, with significantly reduced cardiovascular demands compared to the rugby codes)?
But the beauty of it is this – If anyone can do it, Hayne can.
In many ways, the next 2-3 years were always destined to define Hayne’s legacy. Most Rugby League players hit their peak in their late twenties, when they achieve an optimal balance of physical conditioning, match experience, skill development and mental fortitude. For all his brilliance, Hayne still doesn’t have a premiership to his name. Nor has he ever attained the mantle of best fullback (his preferred position) in the game. To many, Hayne still had a transition to make – from good to great.
Now, Hayne has a different challenge ahead of him. He has chosen to sacrifice part of his Rugby League legacy. But if he can make an impact in the multibillion dollar world of American sport, he will have done more for Rugby League than any player since 1908. And, for that reason, every Rugby League fan around the world should be cheering him on.