“Rugby player to join NFL.”
If the news that the 49ers would sign Australia’s Jarryd Hayne even made it into U.S. papers Tuesday – the story broke Monday after 10 p.m. on the East Coast – it probably was tossed into a notebook with other NFL items on an inside page of the sports section.
In Australia? It was a LeBron James-chooses-Miami-size event that included a packed, mid-afternoon news conference in the nation’s largest city during which Hayne punctuated his choice by donning a red 49ers baseball cap.
“In Sydney, it’s massive news,” Michael Chammas, who covers the National Rugby League for the Sydney Morning Herald, said in a phone interview. “It’s all over the back pages.”
Jim Wilson, a sports anchor for Channel 7 News Australia, called Hayne a “superstar” there.
“He dreamed of playing in American football as a kid, and now he’s living the dream,” Wilson said.
What makes this story compelling is Hayne, 27, is going from the pinnacle of his sport to the very bottom of the NFL. He was co-winner of the National Rugby League’s player-of-the-year award last year and would have commanded the league’s highest salary with lucrative sponsorship deals. With the 49ers, he signed the same futures contract offered to practice-squad players, NFL journeymen and others who are considered long shots to make a 53-man roster.
Of course, Hayne isn’t exactly coming to America with a couple of nickels in his pocket.
At his news conference, he said the 49ers offered him a $100,000 bonus, which is about $78,000 here. San Francisco was the only team to offer him a guarantee. He also has a deal with Telstra, an Australian media and telecommunications company that has the rights to a documentary being filmed about his run at the NFL.
Still, those who know him say Hayne is not motivated by money and he typically tries to keep his profile as minimal as possible.
He spent November in the Los Angeles area seeking out coaches and trainers who could help him better understand – and prepare for – American football. His agent, Jack Bechta, said Hayne paid for the trip himself, lived out of a hotel and shook the Australian media as soon as he landed.
“All he wanted to do was learn as much about football as he could,” Bechta said.
Hayne was raised in a public housing project in Airds, a suburb of Sydney. He became a schoolboy star in rugby and after joining the National Rugby League in 2006 was named the league’s rookie of the year. He’s played on the Australian and Fijian national teams – his father is from Fiji – and in 2009 was named the best rugby league player in the world.
Since high school, however, he’s had a fascination with the NFL. A few games a week are aired in Australia, and highlights, recaps and discussions are staples of ubiquitous SportsCenter broadcasts there. Despite being at the top of his sport, Hayne got a taste of American football by training with club teams in recent offseasons.
“He doesn’t see this as a financial opportunity,” said Chammas, who has been covering Hayne since he played in the lower leagues. “It’s about fulfilling a dream.”
What are his chances?
The 49ers have another player with a rugby background, Lawrence Okoye, on their roster. Okoye, a defensive lineman, has yet to suit up for a regular-season game in two years and instead has been content to bide his time on the practice squad.
That certainly will be an option for Hayne as well.
But while Okoye is just 23, Hayne is in the prime of his career and would have many options waiting for him back home if his NFL odyssey doesn’t work or the progress is too slow.
At 6-foot-2, 226 pounds, he certainly looks like a player and is bringing with him a diverse set of skills – speed, soft hands and plenty of experience hauling ball carriers to the ground. And his success in the rough-and-tumble National Rugby League suggests he won’t be overwhelmed by the brutality of the American sport.
“(Rugby) training is so much tougher,” Bechta said. “They go three, four hours a day, sometimes two-a-days. They get after it.”
Read Matt Barrows’ blogs and archives at www.sacbee.com/sf49ers.