I’ve wanted to put up something for a bit about Jarryd Hayne and the 49ers-Cowboys clash seems as good as opportunity as any. I’m thinking it will be a key moment in Hayne’s bid for credibility within the NFL, not just because it proves that his 53-yard run against the Houston Texans wasn’t a fluke, but because the Cowboys themselves are the single most successful team in the NFL franchise. Houston and Dallas may only be a couple hundred miles away from each other, but they’re light years away in terms of NFL fandom. Make inroads on Dallas and you make inroads on the entire NFL – at least that’s my thinking – and Hayne seems to have done that with aplomb, fielding a punt from the Cowboys pretty soon into the first quarter and just getting better and better from there. Watching the game unfold, you can really see why the transition from NRL to NFL makes sense, with Hayne seeming to transform from a fullback to a running back over the course of that single mad dash. That transformation is pretty astonishing – watching one football code, you get so used to seeing players against certain backdrops that it’s a real shock to the system to see them pulling different moves, in different venues, in such different gear. Think the surprise of seeing Glenn Stewart in green and red and then amplify it a hundredfold. Even the fact of Hayne playing in Santa Clara and training in San Francisco has something exotic about it – the stuff of telemovies – and the media seems to have tapped into that exoticism, really relishing shots of his named jersey, something we reserve for Origin, but which here seems to signal and cement his graduation into a football stratosphere beyond even the Blues.
All of which makes me think about what it means for Hayne to have made – or to be slated to make – this transition. From the very beginning, my sense has been that the – very understandable – media adulation of Hayne has masked a deeper anxiety about NRL comparative to other world football franchises, or even local franchises like the Tahs, the Wallabies and the All Blacks. Compared to them, it’d be hard to claim that NRL wasn’t disenfranchised – even the most valued players, like Slater or Thurston, only receive a fraction of what they’d be getting in the States. Add to that the fact that League has typically been demarcated as a working-class sport in Australia – though not in New Zealand, where the League-Union boundaries are fairly fluid – and you can maybe start to understand some of the anxieties surrounding Hayne’s enormous upward mobility. I think the situation is only exacerbated by the fact that Hayne doesn’t seem to have had much time for NRL in his last year or so in the game. While he did give his all to Origin 2014 – and to the second game in particular, one of the best and most brutal in recent years – there seems to have been a kind of consensus that he was radically underachieving as a footy player, thanks in part to a refusal to be disciplined about his training while out at Parra. Watching Hayne soar with the 49ers is perhaps a bit confronting for a footy fan, then, because it’s like watching a vision of what he could have been if he’d had the same conviction when it came to League, a physical and kinetic brilliance that we glimpsed at Origin and intermittently at Parra, but rarely as consistently as over these last two NFL games alone.
And conviction, in some ways, is the key word here. Comparisons between NFL and NRL aside, a cynic might argue that Hayne made the move because Australia was no longer big enough for his ego. I’m not disagreeing with that – although when were sports stars ever free from ego? – but I think there’s more to it as well. Hayne strikes me as a very ideological player, by which I mean that he’s the kind of player who turns the game into a philosophy, a mantra, a creed that dictates his whole life. For Hayne, that also happens to be a religious creed, and because Australia is a bit sceptical about full-blown ideological conviction, the sports media never quite knew how to handle that side of Hayne, the side that attended a Hillsong Conference to testify in the midst of the most brutal and critical training schedule in his life. Americans, by contrast, tend to be more open and extroverted in that kind of conviction, while the NFL is often the hotbed of a zealotry that’s almost inimical to the laidback kind of mateship endemic to League. My sense is that – love of the game and ego aside – Hayne made the move because he’s quite a zealous player, and needed that sense of mission to fulfil his potential. If he was undisciplined at Parra, it’s only because he needed total discipline of the kind only to be found in the NFL. To me, it’s an American heartland kind of attitude, and Hayne is ultimately a heartland kind of player – his first choice, after all, was Detroit – even if he happens to have found himself on the West Coast at the moment.
So, all round, an interesting situation. I guess the best outcome for NRL fans would be if Hayne could manage to somehow bring some of that spark back to the game, if only as a one-off. In recent interviews, he’s discussed the possibility of doing Origin if his schedule permitted, which raises interesting questions: if New Zealand players are going to continue to be excluded from Origin, will the NRL let back in a player now affiliated to a different country and a different code? Hayne back on the field against QLD after smashing the Dallas Cowboys – now that would be a spectacle to enjoy.