Is the NFL threat to Rugby Union real?
OPINION: For a long time now, English rugby has been the king of the castle.
Sure, the national team have not dominated internationally like New Zealand, nor have the Aviva Premiership clubs had a monopoly on European titles, with French chateaus and Irish caisleáns prominent on the landscape, too, but it has had the comfort of being an apex predator at the top of the food chain off the field.
No national governing body can even come close to matching the revenues that the Rugby Football Union (RFU) produce and although the Premiership clubs can’t quite compete with the spending power, en masse, that the Top 14 sides do in France, a home-based selection policy from the RFU has ensured that players of talent do not leave these shores until all hopes of international recognition have faded.
Fortunes on the field have waxed and waned in the professional era at both club and international level, but there has always been a relative stability to English rugby and it is they who lure players from other countries to come and ply their trade in the Premiership, they who have the financial firepower to negotiate a beneficial accord between club and country and they who boast over 2,000,000 total players, per World Rugby’s Year in Review 2016 data.
We have seen this season, however, that there is a new player in town and his chequebook is considerably larger than that of English rugby.
In fact, if English rugby is the bloke down the pub with the wallet fit to bursting with £50 notes, then the National Football League (NFL) is the guy who never carries cash. Just a contactless credit card and bullish swagger.
We have seen in the last year two professional rugby players leave England to take up the ambitious quest of making it in the NFL.
Firstly, England 7s star Alex Gray moved in the summer, taking up a place on the practice squad of the Atlanta Falcons, before Worcester Warriors’ Christian Scotland-Williamson left in late 2017, seeking to work with NFL coaches and be ready to try and make a team for the 2018 season.
It is admirable of both players to take a step into the unknown and try to blaze a trail for other rugby players, but make no bones about it, the odds are firmly stacked against them.
At 26 and 24 years of age respectively, Gray and Scotland-Williamson are in situations not entirely dissimilar to the one Jarryd Hayne faced, when he tried to crack the NFL as a then-27-year-old.
Hayne made it on to the San Francisco 49ers active roster due to his ability on special teams as a kick and punt returner, a position which, relative to most others in the game, requires little technical expertise or familiarity with the sport.
Admittedly, even return men need a good understanding of ball security and blocking and Hayne’s accomplishment of seeing NFL regular season action in that position shouldn’t be underestimated, but it is a luxury that neither Gray nor Scotland-Williamson will have.
As a tight end, Gray’s learning curve is steep, having to not only learn an extensive offensive playbook, but also acquire skills, such as blocking and pass protection, that he will never have had call to use in rugby.
Similarly, Scotland-Williamson, who will likely translate to the sport as a defensive lineman, will have to learn how to rush the passer – including the myriad of techniques required to do so – and stop the run, which, again, demands knowledge of an extensive defensive playbook and far from simple duties such as gap assignment and leveraging 330-pound offensive linemen.
To try and learn all these things, in your mid-20’s, at the most elite level of the sport, is asking so much of the pair.
The ability to transition between the sports is a conversation which has been thrust back into the limelight this past week by the comments of England and British and Irish Lions star Anthony Watson, who said on the BBC’s Rugby Union Weekly podcast that he would “like to give it a shot potentially”.
This is no throwaway comment, either. There’s genuine interest there.
The Bath full-back has no plans of leaving rugby before the 2019 Rugby World Cup, but he’ll be 25 years of age once the tournament concludes and, assuming he would aim to make a roster for the 2020 NFL season, he’d be 26 before playing a down of football in anger.
To learn the complexities of route-running as a wide receiver or defensive coverages as a cornerback or safety at that age is a gargantuan task.
Obviously, the NFL has big plans for the UK and London, with an unofficial deadline of 2022 set for having a team permanently based in the city. They are keen to see international athletes in the NFL to help grow appeal for the game around the globe and it is that eagerness which has opened the door to Gray and, likely, Scotland-Williamson.
Each NFL team is allowed to stash 10 players on their practice squads each season, with the hopes of developing them into players capable of making the active roster in subsequent seasons. The International Player Pathway made its debut this season and has allowed the NFC South teams to carry an 11th player, providing they are international players.
Gray was one of three Brits to make the most of this opportunity, alongside college football graduate Alex Jenkins and Efe Obada, who had experience playing football at the amateur level in the UK.
If the NFL expands this pathway in its second season, it would be an obvious home for Scotland-Williamson, as well as providing an extremely tempting destination for many other rugby players.
Even if a rugby player is realistic about their prospects of making an active roster in the NFL, a couple of years on a practice squad could earn them significantly more money than playing rugby in that time would.
The minimum weekly salary for practice squad players in 2017 was $7,200 (£5,300) and even with the most pessimistic of projections – that the NFL team would keep them on the practice squad for the 17 weeks of the regular season and then decide to cut them – that’s still potential earnings of at least $122,400 (£90,500). In all honesty, the figure will likely be a lot higher than that, too, with the player almost certain to be involved in training camp, preseason and, if they show any sign of inclination to the sport, kept around for a second or even third year on the practice squad.
That kind of money is peanuts to an NFL franchise and more than worth spending on the remote chance the player is capable of making an impact for them a season or two down the road.
It is not hard to foresee both Gray and Scotland-Williamson making substantially more money in the NFL over the next couple of years than they would in rugby, potentially without ever playing a snap of football on the active roster.
Where the harder business decisions will come, are with players like Watson, who have significant earning potential in rugby, are already stars of the sport and have the chance of leaving a big legacy when they do ultimately hang up their boots.
I, just like any other dual rugby and NFL fan, want to see rugby players go to the NFL and succeed. Partly for national pride, partly for some remnant of rugby snobbery that I can’t completely erase and partly for the benefit that rugby, as a sport, can have on football, in terms of tackling and ball-handling.
But I don’t think established rugby players transitioning to the sport in their mid-20’s is the way to go about it.
Tyrese Johnson-Fisher is currently blazing a new trail, having recently featured in the Under Armour All-America Game, an exhibition match which brings together the best high school football players in the States, and he is now fielding scholarship offers from multiple colleges, who are keen to make the most of his unique skill set.
He will now have three-to-five years at college to learn the game, develop his skills and hopefully enter the NFL Draft capable of making an impact at the elite level. College football is no easy task, either, but it’s a steep learning curve where the summit is reachable, rather than the oxygen-thin heights of the NFL.
That won’t stop the NFL from making overtures, though, and those overtures will only become more pronounced the closer we get to having an NFL team in London.
Rugby may have ever lived in – and I ask your forgiveness for this, but to avoid “football” confusion – soccer’s shadow in England and will it ever be thus, but as sports, they have never gone head-to-head over the recruitment of senior players. They may battle it out in schools for the top talent available, but once a player committed to rugby, that was it, he was safe from poaching.
The NFL won’t play by those rules.
There is a harmonious relationship to be had between the two sports. There are players more suited to the physical extremes and high intensity plays of football, whilst there are others far more coveted in the endurance-heavy contests of the rugby pitch, but football can afford to take flyers on players, have a look at them for a couple of years and then decide they’re not interested.
That is something which could derail a promising rugby career. There is no guarantee they can return to rugby and play it an elite level again, given the physical adaptations they will have likely had to make, as well as the many technical skills that would have gone unused for two or three seasons.
The key will be players, coaches and agents being honest with themselves.
Do I legitimately have a shot at the NFL?
Is this purely a financial decision?
Do I really have a passion for the sport or am I caught up in the glitz and glamour of it?
What will I have to give up to try this?
Am I simply a PR gesture?
It will certainly be an interesting few years, seeing how Gray, Scotland-Williamson and Johnson-Fisher go at their respective levels and without doubt, we will see more players transition in that time.
English rugby, which had been an apex predator, is about to find it is sharing its feeding grounds with something with far longer claws and much sharper teeth.
This must be what it feels like to be a southern hemisphere rugby fan.