SANTA CLARA -- The Hayne Plane is circling back to the South Pacific.
Jarryd Hayne, the 49ers' running back who became an international sensation last preseason, has decided to leave the team in order to pursue a spot on Fiji's Rugby Seven squad for the upcoming Olympics. While Hayne is Australian and became a household name in that country's Rugby League, his father is Fijian and he has played on Fijian national teams in the past.
“I simply could not pass that chance up," Hayne said in a statement released by the 49ers. “The Olympics has been something I have admired since I was a little boy, and it is an opportunity I feel very similar to me joining the NFL.”
Hayne, 28 spent nine years in Australia's National Rugby League (NRL), beginning as an 18 year old with the Parramatta Eels. He twice was named the league's top player, most recently in 2014.
His quest to make an NFL roster -- unprecedented for a player of his stature -- was followed breathlessly in Australia and he did so based on his fearlessness as a return man in last year's preseason. There were more Australian media than American reporters at some 49ers preseason games, and by late September, Hayne’s No. 38, ranked fifth among all NFL players in jersey sales.
When the regular season began, however, Hayne had more bobbles than big returns and he was replaced as the primary return man and eventually dropped to the team's practice squad.
Injuries at running back later in the year forced the 49ers to add him back to the 53-man roster in December. He appeared in eight games overall and had 17 carries for 52 yards along with six receptions for 27 yards. He also returned eight punts for 76 yards on special teams.
Hayne's best shot for making the team this year also appeared to be as a returner, not as a running back.
The starting running back is Carlos Hyde. The next best runners seem to be Shuan Draughn and DuJuan Harris. Mike Davis and sixth-round draft pick Kelvin Taylor also will compete for playing time.
Along with Hayne, receivers Bruce Ellington and DeAndrew White handled punt returns last offseason and preseason. Ellington averaged 7.2 yards a return in the regular season, which ranked 21st in the league. He and White remain the most likely candidates for that role this year.
Last month Hayne addressed reports out of Australia that he was considering leaving the 49ers.
“I guess it was disappointing, but that’s the media back home,” he said. “They make stories up whether it’s to sell papers or try to get more viewers. I’m accustomed to that. I know how they operate.”