MVP: Jarryd Hayne (San Francisco 49ers; Running Back; Parramatta Eels; Fullback)

From NRL to NFL
From NRL to NFL

Over the last year, the NRL news cycle has been dominated by one event: Jarryd Hayne’s move to the NFL. In fact, if one NRL event was to define 2015, even the Cowboys’ incredible victory in the Grand Final would probably pale in comparison to the amount of media speculation and hype that has surrounded Hayne’s move to the 49ers. While Australian NFL players are nothing new, they’ve always been sourced from AFL or Rugby Union, football codes that have considerably more cache in terms of class and reputation at an international level than Rugby League. Even in those cases, and for players like Jordan Berry, Sam Irwin-Hill and Tom Hornsey, the move to NFL was seen as a step up in the world, but for an NRL player to move to the NFL is the stuff of dreams and encapsulates the class mobility that – in Australia in particular – epitomises the romance and mythology of sport, the sense that sport represents an equal playing field where anyone can make something of themselves if they work hard enough for it.

Hayne2

In the case of Hayne, that transition is all the more startling in that he was playing for one of the least successful outfits in the NRL, and wasn’t even achieving his potential there, with most reports from the sheds suggesting that he’d lost motivation a long time before he left for the States, frequently skipping training and team bonding sessions. No doubt, he was still one of the best players in the game – he dominated Origin in 2014 – but that sense of unrealised potential made you wonder whether he might be one of the players who wait out their entire career for an opportunity or venue to put their supreme football skill to better use. And while you could argue that the 49ers occupy a similar position in the NFL as the Eels do in the NRL – bottom-dwellers desperately searching for a way to recover their former glory – there was something about seeing Hayne move so effortlessly from frustration to elation that was hard to resist, even if he did leave behind a fairly depleted Eels and Blues outfit to regather in his wake.

Debut: San Francisco 49ers v San Diego Chargers
Debut: San Francisco 49ers v San Diego Chargers

For all those reasons, Hayne has transformed, overnight, from one of Australia’s best sportsmen to a veritable ambassador for Australian sports, earning comparisons to Donald Bradman, Dawn Fraser and Cathy Freeman that seem less about actual performance in either the NRL or the NFL than in the sheer fact of him breaking into the latter. Without at all detracting from Hayne’s achievements, there has been something a bit pre-emptive in the way that his NFL career has been assumed as a foregone conclusion on the part of the tabloid media, an assumption that is obviously partly about backing and supporting him, but must have also put an incredible amount of pressure on him to perform at the level required to maintain his position with San Francisco. Not only has he been the running front cover story for most Australian tabloid publications – even in the leadup to the NRL Grand Final – but there has been a wave of merchandising that, in the sheer speed and variety with which it has unfolded, is totally unprecedented for an Australian sportsman. In the weeks since the Grand Final, I think I’ve only seen one or two people in Cowboys gear, while Hayne jerseys have started to feel ubiquitous. Of course, I live in Sydney, not North Queensland, but there’s still something to be said about the way in which Hayne’s iconography has started to pervade every aspect of Australian culture.

Alternate colours
Alternate colours

And iconography is perhaps the best word to describe the way that Hayne has been presented by the tabloid media, and Fox Sports in particular. When he was at Parra, he was often photographed and framed in positions that seemed to correspond with the Eels – and his own – thwarted ambitions, often just as he was catching his breath or looking up at a play that had gone wrong. Obviously, that changed a bit when it came to Origin – if there was a single NRL photograph that encapsulated 2014 Origin, it was Hayne beating his chest at the end of Game 1 – but for the most part he was presented in a hangdog, anticlimactic, what-am-I-doing-here kind of register, light years away from the noble silhouettes and heroic postures that have been associated with his stint with the 49ers. While that’s partly to do with the heroics of NFL itself, and the kinds of warrior poses that the gear, gameplay and media coverage tend to engender, there’s also a sense in which the NFL has somehow beatified Hayne as well, apotheosising him into the patron saint of Australian sport on the international stage.

Number 38
Number 38

In part, that’s because Hayne himself has figured his move to the NRL as a an apotheosis, or at least as the culmination of his religious mission as much as his sporting mission, most iconically when he took time out from his busy 49ers schedule to make an appearance at a 2015 Hillsong event. While there is undoubtedly something self-aggrandising about Hayne’s presentation of himself in this way, there is also a very real sense in which his move to the 49ers has been religiously fuelled, insofar as American sports – and American football in particular – are much more open to explicit ideological conviction – and especially explicitly conservative ideological conviction – than Australian sports. For all kinds of reasons, Australians tend to be a bit more sceptical about open ideological avowal, and while Australian sport is inextricably bound up with a certain notion of Australian values, it tends to be in a more indirect, suggestive and self-deprecating manner than the kinds of open ideological commitment that Hayne has made more and more a part of his persona, even if – somewhat ironically – his commitment to the Eels was steadily waning in the buildup to his move to the United States. I’ve been following Hayne on Twitter for some time, and you can really see the shift towards this more mission-based sensibility as his movement towards the NFL has become imminent, even if his fascination, awe and even status anxiety in the face of the NFL has always been a fairly pervasive part of his Twitter personality.

Post-match
Post-match

In that sense, Hayne has had the sensibility of an NFL player for some time, promulgating an old-fashioned muscular Christianity that perhaps needs the ideological backdrop of a venue like the NFL to really allow him to develop his actual sporting prowess to the best of his abilities. Of course, that’s not to deny Hayne’s very real talent for NFL, which is partly to do with the way in which he already managed to incorporate elements of the running back into his time as fullback, and partly just one facet of what appears to be a fairly across-the-board sporting genius. After all, this is the kind of guy who managed to rack up a National Schoolboys Championship without even training, as well as a player who managed to steer the Blues towards their first victory in nearly a decade without seeming to break a sweat. But sometimes the best sports players need some kind of worldview or outside impetus to harness and coerce their talents. Just as Cathy Freeman’s decision to wear the Aboriginal flag in the Opening Ceremony of the 2000 Olympics seemed to give her the conviction and focus she needed to take home gold in the 400 metres, so Hayne’s move to the NFL finally seems to have gathered all his various talents for the first time.

Merchandise
Merchandise

All of which makes Hayne something of a conundrum for the Australian tabloid media, insofar as his move to the NFL has cemeted him as an Australian sporting ambassador but has also clarified those things about his persona that seem to mark him off as more American than Australian at the same time. While the media has responded to that in various ways, the most pervasive strategy has been to consciously “claim” (or counterclaim) Hayne as an epitome of Australian values as much as American values, a kind of universal Australian sporting subject wherever he happens to be in the world – and several aspects of Hayne’s persona undoubtedly lend themselves to this, most notably his rags-to-riches story, his respect for women (and especially for his mother) and, above all, his Christianity, although in typical Australian fashion this is not generally labelled as such by the media but instead subsumed into his conviction, his dream, his mission, his vision and various other epithets. In fact, you could argue that the kernel of these competing visions of the American and Australian Hayne partly turns on the contradictory role that Christianity plays in Australian society, where it still influences political, administrative and legislative decisions to an unwarranted extent for what is putatively a secular democracy but is also not acknowledged in the more explicit and flamboyant manner characteristic of American conservative politicians.

Eels v 49ers, Fullback v Running Back
Eels v 49ers, Fullback v Running Back

Claiming Hayne, then, means taking all that ideological flamboyance and repurposing it for a more sceptical audience, as well as deflecting it into a hyperbolic, almost hallucinatory patriotic halo that has surrounded Hayne wherever he goes and whatever he does. As mentioned earlier, that’s a lot of pressure for a player, and makes you wonder whether his fairly inconsistent last couple of weeks with San Francisco is partly a response to that always-escalating expectation. At the same time, though, the sense of a competition between the American and Australian Hayne has itself tended to be deflected into the growing sense of a rivalry between NRL and NFL – a rivalry that would have seemed absurd even five years ago – as Hayne’s movement has inspired what may turn out to be the first great wave of Rugby League players seeking employment in American Football, with Josh Dugan, Willie Mason, Todd Carney, Greg Inglis and Cory Paterson expressing an interest in the game, and explicitly attributing their interest to Hayne’s transition.

Eels v Panthers, 2014
Eels v Panthers, 2014

Looking at that list of names, you don’t have to be a footy expert to understand why this projected movement is a concern for the NRL, and has engendered a somewhat defensive, competitive mindset. Most immediately, these are some of the best League players out there, and moreover are sourced from such a wide variety of teams – Souths, Dragons, Sea Eagles, even Salford – that the decision to move can’t be reduced to the culture of any one club. At the same time, there a couple of players in there that the NRL let slip from their grasp, whether because they were looking for a more lucrative career elsewhere, as in Paterson’s move from the Knights to Salford, or because they’ve behaved badly, and thereby proved the inefficacy of the NRL’s Integrity unit, such as Todd Carney, who has compounded his departure by – quite fairly – drawing attention to the double standards that allows a player like Blake Ferguson to return to his former glory while he’s still excluded from the game. If two of the NRL’s greatest insecurities are its inability to remunerate players to the same extent as other codes – or to properly control remuneration so as to avoid massive salary cap breaches and discrepancies – as well as its inability to properly and judiciously ensure player discipline – and avoid both inadequate or disproportionate punishment – then it’s no coincidence that the prospect of these players following Hayne to the NFL has led to something of a bunker mentality in some NRL corners.

Hayne Plane
Hayne Plane

At the same time, there’s an even more pervasive reason for the NRL to dread these player’s departures, or even the very prospect of their departures – namely, they’re among the most important Origin players. In particular, it’s impossible to imagine Origin without Dugan and Inglis, while Carney has played some pretty impressive matches in his time as well. While the Grand Final may be the climactic event of the NRL year, Origin is arguably the flagship event, the time of year when even non-League supporters are likely to plan their night around the match, and the event that really seems to distinguish League from the other Australian football codes, who don’t have any analogous event in their yearly lineup. For that very reason, though, Origin also tends to be a bit of a focal point for NRL status anxiety as well, especially in recent debates about whether it should be opened up to international players to allow for a better cross-section of the game, with some pundits claiming that doing so will expand Origin even further into the international sporting arena, but some arguing that that very expansion will come at the expense of what made Origin so distinctive – and marketable – in the first place. And in some ways, the paradox of Origin is that the very parochialism of the contest – New South Wales and Queensland seems like the most old-fashioned of rivalries – may be actually what ensures that it continues to be viable in a globalised sporting world, just as the intra-city dynamic of NRL is more and more unique for a world propelled by interstate and international sporting fixtures.

Eels v Dragons, 2009
Eels v Dragons, 2009

There must be something very unsettling to the NRL, then, in seeing the NFL effectively supplant Origin as the promised land for these top-tier players, and while Inglis, Dugan and Carney have all had at least a chance to shine in Origin – and Inglis is nothing short of a Maroons legend – it does conjure up the possibility of an alternative future in which players graduate straight from NRL to NFL, rather than from the NRL to Origin. While that may sound somewhat paranoid, there is a tone of paranoia and desperation in the way that the media and the NRL have handled this, with one of the most typical, compensatory responses being that Origin was not only an important step – but a necessary step – in Hayne’s transition from NRL to NFL. Of course, there’s probably a great deal of truth in that – Hayne shone with the Blues as he hadn’t shone with the Eels for some time – and Hayne himself has repeatedly cited his time with the New South Wales training camp in 2014 as a clear forerunner of his decision to move to the United States, as well as frequently using Origin as an analogy for what’s ensued since his arrived, famously comparing NFL to NRL by observing that it is like “Origin every week.”

Blues training
Blues training

Whether or not this has assuaged the NRL is hard to say – does it affirm or replace Origin as a pinnacle of footy achievement? – but even in the light of Hayne’s pronouncements there’s something frenzied about the media’s continual efforts to extend and fill out those analogies between Origin and NFL, culminating with a series of truly bizarre speculations earlier in the year as to whether Hayne would quite his gruelling NFL training to return home to appear for the Blues once more. Of course, that didn’t happen, but you have to wonder whether all the media buzz – largely generated by the Telegraph – as actually what induced Hayne to return to the Blues training camp before Game III while sojourning in Australia for a minor foot operation, as well as penning a writeup of Game II for the Herald, part of a crossover into more “highbrow” news publications that has also been a byproduct of his crossover into NFL. At the end of the day, Hayne is nothing if not a brilliant self-marketer, and you have to wonder whether his continual use of Origin as a point of reference is a way of retaining an Australian fanbase – and the ongoing support of the NRL as an institution – by reminding them that the NRL’s most singular sporting event is by no means off his radar, and by no means reduced by his departure from it.

Origin enforcer
Origin enforcer

Origin aside, the NRL’s anxiety is compounded by the fact that the NFL more generally feels more and more like the promised land for a great deal of NRL hopefuls. I’ve followed quite a few players on Twitter for some time, and while there is obviously a great deal of interest in other Australian sports, I was initially surprised by the extent to which NFL was a topic of conversation. In part, that has to be because NFL slots in quite neatly during the NRL offseason, but it must also be because of the similarities between the games in terms of their physical grind as well. Of course, Rugby League is more similar to Rugby Union than any other football code, but there’s a brutality to both League and NFL that makes them natural bedfellows. At the same time, there seems to be a pretty strong digital gaming subculture amongst NRL fans, with players often tweeting about their scores or about gathering socially to play together. While that’s obviously sparked the success and strict quality control of the Rugby League Live franchise, most players quite understandably don’t want to play around with their virtual selves, but instead turn to the Madden and FIFA franchises, but especially Madden, which seems to have become a critical part of the NRL social scene, as well as the NRL social media scene. In fact, if reports by Justin Horo and Ben Smith are anything to go by, Hayne actually developed his love for the NFL during Madden binges, while you have to wonder whether his failure to show up for training at Parra and give his all to the Eels had something to do with post-gaming hangovers as well.

Origin: Battle of the Fullbacks
Origin: Battle of the Fullbacks

There’s something appropriate, then, about the way in which Hayne’s Madden life has converged with his actual onfield NFL life. On the one hand, Smith has said that Hayne used to always dress up in Reggie Bush’s 49ers jersey during Madden marathons at their sharehouse. On the other hand, Hayne himself was included in Madden ’16 just as he was closing his deal with the 49ers, where he was included in the Madden Ultimate Team Mystery Box and given an incredibly high rating of 95 in Acceleration, 93 in Carry and 90 in Juke Move. For my money, there’s no better example of the hyperbolic, hallucinatory and almost unbelievable hype that surrounded Hayne than the way in which he managed to make it in this virtual realm before actually being tested properly on the field. Apparently, a great deal of his inclusion in this latest iteration of Madden was down to social media agitation and fan support – after all, there are plenty of stronger contenders in the NFL than a novice Running Back who hasn’t even been signed – and so there was something about the spectacle of this virtual Hayne that also seemed to encapsulate the intensity of his fan base as well, the way they seemed able to will him to success so completely that it already felt like a fait accompli before he had even joined the San Francisco roster. In Long before Hayne really made his mark on the NFL field, Hayne fans were leading him to victory on their consoles – and only in the era of digital gaming and social media could a player be canonised as a great before playing a single match.  Once again I have to wonder whether there may have been something a bit debilitating about how quickly his image got away from him once the media picked it up and ran with it, not least because of how deftly Madden ’16 tapped into the victory he was trying to achieve, which was not only to succeed in the NFL, but to seamlessly transplant and manipulate his NRL credentials for this new code, something Madden ’16 beautifully captured in his 93 Carry score, which allowed Rugby League fans to see Hayne pull a panorama of protective Origins moves within the guise of NFL gameplay and the 49ers jersey.

Virtual Hayne
Virtual Hayne

It’s no surprise, then, that Hayne has become something of a patron saint to NRL players as well, with many of them emulating and playing through him vicariously on their Madden consoles, but many also making the pilgrimage to see him play in person as well. If Twitter is a particularly popular NRL medium, it’s largely because of how the most prolific NRL Tweeters have managed to remake it as a visual medium – emoticons, emojis, pictures and video abounding – in the image of Instagram, which is the NRL social media platform par excellence, and where the majority of interaction between players and fans tends to occur. Appropriately, then, a whole new subgenre of NRL Instagram photographs has emerged in which players document themselves travelling to the United States to watch Hayne, a journey that usually ends with a selfie in some gigantic American stadium and – if they’re lucky – a trip backstage to meet the man himself. While quite a few NRL players have made the trek, the most recent have been Trent Hodkinson and Nate Myles, and there was something about seeing these Blues and Maroons enforcers joined in their tribute to the Hayne Train that really brought home how thoroughly this movement to the NFL threatens to dissolve Origin, or to render its rivalries somewhat minor in the face of the epic scale of sporting combat available in the United States.

Blues triumph
Blues triumph

In some ways, all that has come to a head in the last couple of days, with Hayne being waived from the 49ers roster, a decision that was perhaps not surprising in the wake of a few fumbles over the last couple of games – fumbles that are, in some ways, more critical in an NFL context than in an NRL context, due to the differences between the games, the higher stakes, and as the vastly greater number of potential players waiting on the sidelines to step into the action. At the same time, that has put Hayne in an unusual position media-wise, insofar as it has somewhat dethroned him as the patron saint of Australian sport on the international stage – suddenly he seems fallible in a manner that was unthinkable only a couple of weeks ago – but has also, by severing his ties with the United States a little, seemed to reiterate him as Australian at the same time. Add to the fact that his manager has decisively stated that this will not mean a return to the NRL – if anything, it is a strengthening of the resolve that led him to quit the NRL in the first place – and Hayne’s complicated relationship to the Australian sporting psyche feels even more complicated than ever before, with speculations tentatively emerging about what teams could best use his talents back home. Sure, these are all hypotheticals, but a return to the NRL didn’t feel possible even hypothetically a couple of weeks ago, which in itself says something about the way his status has subtly shifted in the last couple of days. It’s no surprise, either, that most speculations have centred on the Roosters – not only because they’re in desperate need of a star fullback in the wake of RTS’s departure for the Warriors, but because the Chooks have traditionally functioned as a kind of holding-pen for players transitioning in and out of League, an aspirational zone that’s particularly amenable to other football codes.

With the Kangaroos
With the Kangaroos

Of course, I don’t think it’s likely that Hayne will return to the NRL. Even if Reggie Bush’s recent injury doesn’t give him a second chance to prove his mettle, he can always fall back upon the Seahawks and the Lions, who backed him from Day One – and there’s something pretty special about the idea of Hayne playing for Detroit or Seattle, if only because it’s another version of the exotic movement from Parra to the United States (or from Minto to the United States, depending on how far back you take the mythology) that makes the Hayne Train such a fairytale figure. Who would ever have thought that a player who made his name at Parramatta Stadium would end up at Ford Field in Detroit or CenturyLink Field in Seattle? At the same time, what’s important here isn’t whether or not Hayne will return to the NRL so much as the way in which his recent demotion at the 49ers has once again brought his uneasy American-Australian sporting status into greater relief, as well as the way it complicates his Australian credentials.

Eels, Kangaroos
Eels, Kangaroos

And that complication has perhaps been more evident in the last couple of days than in the whole rest of the Hayne saga combined, as we’ve seen the flip side of the ecstatic fandom that has accompanied the Parra fullback every step of the way towards San Francisco. Make no mistake, I’ve long felt that Hayne was one of the best players of the game, and one of the most dynamic to watch, when he was at his peak – which to be honest, wasn’t all that consistently – while as a Blues supporter I’d probably rate him as one of the most important players to the New South Wales side over the last decade. At the same time, there has been something hyperactive and hysterial about the way acclaim has mounted surrounding his move to the 49ers, and it feels as if now that he’s been faced with his first setback, that hysteria has very abruptly shifted into a negative, aggressive and quite moralistic gear, which isn’t really a credit to the sport or Hayne’s fanbases themselves. It’s all the more unusual in that this isn’t really a major setback. After all, Hayne has made the most important step in getting himself a position on a regular NFL squad in the first place – the most important credential for anyone wanting to play the game – while the lack of any clear analogy to the waiver rule in Australian football codes possibly makes things seem more drastic than they really are.

Warming up to face the Denver Broncos
Warming up to face the Denver Broncos

While Hayne could almost certainly find a career at Seattle, Detroit or one of the many other NFL clubs out there – it’s easy to forget how huge the NFL is compared to the NRL – there’s also every chance that he’ll stick with the 49ers, since the oscillation between being on and off the team is much more common in the NFL than in the NRL. When Chris Sandow was sent down to Wentworthville until he could get things together for Parramatta it was a big deal – almost a scandal – but in the case of this former Eel it’s nowhere near as dramatic, at least not to an American audience. Prodigy Hayne may be, but his fanbase seem to have expected that he would rise up through the ranks and achieve the security and insulatity of a four-year player – the limit for the waiver clause – overnight, which is an unrealistic expectation for even this most talented of footy geniuses.

Hayne20
NFL training, Coogee

At the same time, as various members of the 49ers have been quick to point out, the fact that the waiver was enacted on a Friday probably means that San Francisco aren’t looking to get rid of Hayne for good, but instead simply reshuffling things while keeping his future open at the same time. When NFL players are given a waiver, they’re offered forty-eight hours to sign with another club, instead of reminaing with their original club on an off-field basis. Waiving Hayne just before the weekend limits his chances of signing with another club during the waiver period, which suggests that the 49ers are keen to keep him around, even if they’re not prepared to offer him a position on the field at exactly this point in time. Add to that the fact that Hayne’s teammates seem to have a good opinion of him, even within the hyper-unified, militaristic front that typifies NRL team mentality, and there’s every chance that Hayne will be out of the San Francisco practice roster and back on the field before the media outrage has even died down.

Steeden to Wilson
Steeden to Wilson

All of which makes it even more startling that Hayne’s axing has been greeted with such outrage by the media. In fact, that outrage probably clarifies more than anything that Hayne has moved beyond a mere sporting genius to a global phenomenon, with his iconic 38 jersey appearing all over Australia, the United States and abroad as a kind of symbol of what it means to succeed against the odds and make a name for yourself on the international stage. At the most immediate level, the critical hyperbole has been ramped up even further, with one pundit going so far as to describe the sheer fact of Hayne making his way into the 49ers as being equivalent to Donald Bradman’s entire sporting career, as if to assuage Hayne’s fans that even if – in the worst case scenario – he were to quit the NFL, he would have already achieved more than any other Australian sporting star could hope to glimpse. At the same time, there’s been a corrosive moral rage at Hayne’s removal, much of which has revolved around former Australian NFL luminary Colin Scotts’ notorious pronouncement that he was “disgusted” by the 49ers’ decision. While the tabloid media has tended to be more open in its aggression and dismay, publications like the Herald have been similarly entitled, criticising the 49ers for their decision on the basis of the Australian fans who had bought tickets to see Hayne play in the next couple of matches.

Momentary setback
Momentary setback

While I’ve been a fan of Hayne’s game from his earliest days at the Eels, I must admit that I find this kind of aggression ridiculous, and in quite bad taste, let alone bad sportsmanship. When it comes down to it, there are only two real scenarios that could have led to him being waived from the 49ers team. Firstly, and most simply – and most unspeakably – he wasn’t good enough – yet – which is not an unrealistic prospect for a player who’s just made a drastic code switch. Secondly, it may be that he is good enough, but has been stood down, as some players have suggested, as part of a general pedantry with quality control that is part of the 49ers culture but doesn’t actually correlate to Hayne’s performance individually. Personally, I don’t know enough about NFL to know which of these options is correct, but in either case they’re fairly standard procedures from the perspective of football administration and coaching, and there’s something enormously entitled, arrogant and just plain petulant about Australian fans – and Hayne fans – assuming that Hayne should be kept on just because he has such an incredible backstory, or because he’s managed to bring the NFL to Australia during his meteoric rise. Players should be selected on their ability, talent and performance over the course of the season, and there’s something about the way that the Australian sporting media has railed against the Hayne decision that has – I fear – made us seem like the worst kind of parochial bad sports, just as Hayne was starting to build us a new kind of glamour and prestige on the US sporting stage.

Training with the 49ers
Training with the 49ers

Of course, the logical conclusion of this kind of bad sportsmanship is the suggestion that Hayne has somehow been dropped because he is Australian, which is implicit in most criticisms of the 49ers decision, but articulated very directly by Scotts, which is perhaps why he has become such a spokesperson against the decision and has been so regularly cited by other media. As the first Australian football player to really make waves in the NFL, Scotts has a particular authority and gravity when it comes to discussing the peculiar prejudices facing Australian players trying to break into the American market, and can probably get away with saying things that a regular journalist – or even a regular NRL player and coach – wouldn’t be able to say. At the same time, though, his allegations of racism tap into the main way in which the Australian tabloid media, in particular, has dealt with Hayne’s dual American-Australian identity – namely, by claiming NFL as an Australian sport. Not only has the Hayne Train’s move to the 49ers brought NFL to Australian televisions as never before, but publications like the Telegraph and Courier-Mail have started featuring NFL spreads and front-page articles to an extent that would have seemed impossible before Hayne’s departure, bringing American Football into popular tabloid life in ways that can be quite startling for those used to seeing the Roosters or the Rabbitohs framing the front-page news. For news publications that are particularly NRL-centric, and that are often bought largely for their NRL news, Hayne’s move to San Francisco has provided a fantastic opportunity to turn the NRL news cycle into an all-year phenomenon, as the Parra fullback has become a kind of one-man antidote to the dreary NRL offseason every time he makes a move.

#38
#38

If that wasn’t enough, there’s been recent speculation about bringing the NFL to Australia so that Hayne can play a game in the red and white at Allianz or ANZ Stadiums. While there’s nothing new about Sydney hosting prestige teams, they’ve never been driven by a single player in such an emphatic way. Sure, Chelsea came out earlier in the year to play Sydney FC, and the opening series of Major League Baseball premiered in Sydney in 2013, but in both cases it was about the team, rather than any single player. Similarly, whereas there was a sense that we were hosting Chelsea and Major League, there’s been more of a sense that by inducing the 49ers to come out to Sydney we’d be claiming Hayne – and, by extension the NFL – as somehow our own. And in some ways, it feels as if the final response to the Hayne quandary has been to somehow Australianise NFL through Hayne, or to turn it into a distant branch of Rugby League, in order to heal over the gap that Hayne has left in the wake of his departure from NRL. Fox Sports, in particular, have spearheaded the Australianised NFL movement – not least because they’ve got a quite practical interest in bridging the NRL and NFL markets – and for a while there it felt as if Fox was doing nothing but point all the ways in which Hayne was building upon his Rugby League skills in the NFL, or schooling NFL players themselves in how to play their own game. At its most extreme, Rugby League moves that are considered increasingly dubious were somehow sanitised when transplanted into Hayne’s game, with his epic takedown of Lowell Rose – ironically in a match against the San Diego Chargers – momentarily revising and even redeeming the shoulder charge as a heroic rather than a somewhat dirty football move. In Hayne’s hands, NFL became footy, and while there was something audaciously improbable about that, his waiver from the 49ers has been a pretty abrupt reminder that NFL does after, all belong to America, which some pundits have found hard to swallow, but which I think simply reiterates the challenges he faces, and the excitement of seeing him face them.

Author: Billy Stevenson

Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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