‘Slammin’ Sam’ and ‘The Hayne Train’: Rugby Code-Hoppers in a League of Their Own
Rugby is a hot topic here in the States, and not because of the Rugby World Cup. While the third largest global sporting event kicks off in England, it’s Jarryd Hayne, an Australian rugby league import to American Football that is making all the headlines.
The fascination with ‘code-hoppers’ or crossover athletes like Jarryd Hayne is not a new phenomenon, as rugby’s current obsession with Sam Burgess attests.
With both players set to step into the spotlight I look at why they could succeed in their new sports.
Jarryd Hayne ‘The Hayne Plane’
Jarryd Hayne, the International Rugby League player of the year in 2014 has been signed by the San Francisco 49ers and will debut as a running back for the team this season. Despite being a proven force in League and a naturally gifted athlete, there were some concerns he wouldn’t be suited to the sport but preseason performances convinced the team that some silky rugby skills with ball in hand were what was needed.
There are any similarities between the sports and the skills athletes need to compete. Hayne brings with him high levels of experience in transferable skills – endurance, vision of the field, elusiveness, ball skills, passing and catching – and he has already shown these to good effect, picking up serious yardage in preseason outings. He has already showcased his footwork and decision making at kick returns by spotting the gaps, making the space, switching the ball and fending off opponents. Hayne has the ability to show that although Football is a contact sport, you don’t always have to take contact.
With an endorsement from Under Armour and inclusion in the Madden 16 video game, it seems there is no stopping ‘The Hayne Plane’. All eyes are on how he will perform in his first competitive match but his profile in the sport does much to raise awareness of the calibre and skill of rugby players.
Slammin’ Sam Burgess
With 620 players selected to compete in the RWC it seems irrational that the focus should fall mainly on one player. However when that player has only one season in Union, two international caps for his country and is playing for the home nation it is perhaps understandable that Sam Burgess has grabbed the headlines.
Pundits and players have debated his selection. While none dispute his potential there are differing opinions on whether he has enough experience of the game and where his skills should best be deployed for England. I spoke to Mike Ford in the early stages of researching Rugby Revealed and he was awaiting the arrival of Burgess to his Bath team. He was clear he would start him at centre but saw his longer term position in the back row where he could make best use of his contact prowess.
“Now he [Sam Burgess] might do 60 plays per game in rugby league, 30 tackles and 30 carries, but if he plays centre in rugby union he’ll be doing 15 plays, a quarter of what he does in rugby league. It’s crucial for me that we get him up to that 60 plays because he is a guy whose work rate is phenomenal and for that he has to potentially play in the pack. So once he gets to understand the game and the ruck, and I’ll make him do that from 12, ultimately I want him in that pack where he can have a bigger influence on the game.“
He was keen to stress that Burgess was up to the challenge and committed to the task. “He’s an intelligent player, has the enthusiasm and desire to do well so I think I’ll pick it up really quickly” said Mike Ford, “The one thing I’m not going to do is change Sam Burgess. We bought him because of who he is.”
Working with Cross Over Athletes
Mike Ford’s last line about not changing a player is at the heart of working with crossover athletes if you are to get the best from them. Players come to you with their strengths and approach to playing, and if you try to radically change that to adapt to their new game you may lose what makes them the athletes they are.
Both Burgess and Hayne share one factor in their favour as they look to complete their transition – they both are working with coaches who understand the challenges of changing sports. Burgess is coached by Andy Farrell for England and Mike Ford at Bath, both League players who swapped to Union. Farrell in particular will relate to the challenges and scrutiny that Burgess is under having played for his country in both codes.
Meanwhile Hayne is coached by Jim Tomsula. Coach Tomsula coached for seven years in the NFL Europe League for developmental players. He has a track record of finding and honing the talents of a diverse range of players, including rugby players, to build a team and he is just the man Hayne will need to help him prove himself in the NFL fishbowl.
Rugby in the USA
Crossover athletes or code-hoppers, however you refer to transitioning players, no sport can afford to dismiss the services of any quality athlete who is committed to learning the game and earning their shirt.
Rugby in the States is built on athletes from other sports who have come to the game looking for an opportunity to develop and challenge their skills. The Sevens squad which has qualified for the Rio 2016 Olympics counts amongst its number track athletes and football players who have embraced the sport and found an outlet for their talents.
I firmly believe experience in other sports help make you a better rugby player so I encourage players to test themselves in other sports or gain experience of different positions on a rugby team to develop their skills and understanding. I certainly look forward to seeing if Slammin’ Sam and The Hayne Plane pass their upcoming tests.