The New York Jets have made an unexpected signing- and we are not talking about Tim Tebow. Ben Coles tells the story of how Hayden Smith convinced the Jets to sign him after deciding to switch sports.
Since professionalism took over in Rugby Union and players became significantly greater physical specimens, comparisons between the game and the NFL have been endless and, more often than not, inaccurate.
Whilst the two sports focus on the core abilities of instant power, pace but also detailed tactical planning, the truth is that if you were to show a guard how to scrummage or a winger how to play as a wide receiver, it would take an education rather than an hour’s conversation.
That being said, to date there have been eight Rugby players who have made the switch from the game either at club or school level to go on to play in the NFL.
Traditionally these have been kickers, such as Gary Anderson or Terry Price, the latter reaching the pinnacle of both sports by playing first for the British & Irish Lions before joining the Buffalo Bills back in the 1970s.
Hayden Smith is a different prospect altogether. Born in Penrith, Australia but raised in Colorado, after a promising basketball career fell away Smith began playing Rugby Union in the United States, before being picked up by Saracens in 2008.
Initially on an academy contract, by the next season he had earned a full-time professional deal and played in over half of the Premiership matches in the 2010/2011 season, helping Saracens to the league title.
He then represented the United States at the Rugby World Cup 2011 in New Zealand, playing in all four pool matches.
After returning from New Zealand, Smith has continued to turn out for Saracens in the second row, his last game coming at the end of February in the home defeat to Leicester.
Earlier that month he had spent some time on trial with the New York Jets as well as a host of other NFL teams to see if he had what it takes to make the switch, despite the fact that he had never played American Football previously.
Since then however, Smith has been working closely with former University of Minnesota coach Tim Brewster, a tight end coaching specialist who previously helped college basketball Antonio Gates make the switch to the NFL back in 2004.
The reason Brewster has been so excited about converting Smith to the sport, describing him as “one beautiful piece of clay that you can mold him into whatever you want him to be”, is down to his statistics. At 6ft 7 and 240 lbs, he is a phenomenal specimen, but despite his size is also a terrific athlete, reportedly running 40 metres in 4.7 seconds.
In the position of tight end, this level of stature but also speed is essential.
Used to run routes around the back of the defensive line and providing a short throwing option for the side’s quarterback, tight ends can also act as blockers on the offensive line to protect their QB, two roles that fit Smith’s pace and size perfectly.
Having already made the huge challenge of not just converting to rugby, which brings a whole catalogue of tricky rules and skills as second row, to winning a league title shows that Smith possesses not just a remarkable ability to learn, but also a work ethic that Brewster has described as “off the charts”.
Although initially he will only be on a $355,000 three year contract with the Jets, paltry by NFL standards, the future for the former Saracen is incredibly exciting.
image: © craigboyd