Maan in the middle of the Jarryd Hayne story
WHEN the San Francisco 49ers announced in March they had signed former Parramatta rugby league star Jarryd Hayne to a three-year contract, commentators in the US were intrigued, but decidedly sceptical.
An "expert" on one NFL website acknowledged the 27-year-old had the size and "breakaway speed" required, but added "that alone does not guarantee him an NFL future". He went as far as saying Hayne would be going from "the pinnacle of rugby (league) to training camp fodder".
Six months on, all it was took was two practice games for the dual Dally M medallist to go from being a "curiosity" to "the story of the pre-season", not just for the 49ers, but across the entire competition.
After creating his own highlight reel with some spectacular plays against the Houston Texans and Dallas Cowboys, Hayne has already survived this week's first roster cut, and is rated a certainty to be on San Francisco's final 53-man roster for the coming NFL season which starts next weekend.
But while his story has led to betting agencies in Australia framing markets on how many touchdowns he will score this season, and even whether he will be MVP at the Super Bowl, the reality is that while Hayne has shown an incredible affinity for the American game, he is a long way from being 'the main man'.
One person who has been in the middle of the Hayne story is Emmy award-winning American sports commentator Ted Robinson.
With most of the news about the 49ers being negative since head coach Jim Harbaugh left "by mutual consent" last December, Robinson said Hayne's emergence had been a much-needed good news story for the franchise.
He also said while the transition from rugby league player to NFL player had been incredible, it was important people didn't get ahead of themselves with regard to what role Hayne might play with the team this season.
Q: The hype around Jarryd in Australia has been mind-blowing, what has it been like in San Francisco?
A: Three weeks ago, Jarryd was a "curiosity". Now he is a major San Francisco football story. Further, the 49ers have endured a 12-month period of multiple off-field indiscretions, with a torrent of negative coverage around a half-dozen players. Suffice to say, a "feel-good" story would be most welcome.
Q: What skills has Jarryd shown that stand him in good stand to make the transition to the American game?
A: Jarryd's punt returning skills have been eye-opening. Avoiding a tackler in the open field (the US term is making the "first man miss"), allowed him to have three excellent punt returns against Dallas. And I assume that is a skill that transfers directly from rugby league - his open-field running skill, surveying potential tacklers and the athletic ability to change direction/shift gears.
Q: He seems to have slotted in very capably as a punt returner, but has also done some good things as a running back. What looks to be his best role?
A: Making the 53-man roster will necessitate Jarryd filling more roles than punt return. Important (against Dallas) was seeing him playing on the kick cover unit. I would assume we will see him tried on the punt cover unit as well. If he proves capable of playing special teams "both ways", return teams and cover teams, his chances of a contract are greatly enhanced.
Q: Having played just three games, he obviously has plenty to work on. What's the most obvious?
A: Jarryd runs upright - I assume that to be another rugby league trait. It is not the preferred style for US football, thus there will be much work on lowering his pad level, referencing his shoulder pads.
Q: If he doesn't make the final cut with the 49ers, would another team snap him up?
A: When Jarryd first signed, most of us assumed his path would be to the practice squad. That would give him a year to acclimatise to US football, both on the field and in the football "classroom". In order to reach the practice squad, the player must clear waivers. That means any other NFL team could claim the player, free of charge, if he doesn't make the final roster. Jarryd's performance in the first two pre-season games has eliminated any chance of the practice squad. He would be grabbed by many teams.
Q: Does that mean you are confident he will make the final 53-man squad?
A: So, the 49ers have two options: keep Hayne on the 53-man roster, or lose him to another team.
To reiterate, keeping Jarryd on the 53-man is viable if he has proven the ability to contribute in multiple ways (returning kicks, covering kicks, blocking, reserve running back.)
My opinion: he has done that to the degree that warrants keeping him.
The big question of course is: Does coach Jim Tomsula think Hayne has done enough to warrant keeping him, potentially in preference to a more experienced player like Kendall Hunter.
The 49ers main retail outlet at Levi's Stadium certainly thinks so.
The demand for Hayne's No.38 jerseys has been so great, rather than wait for the final roster to be released, the store has taken the extraordinary step of getting in a big shipment to cater for fans wanting to get on board the Hayne Plane.