“Same game, different rules” – Crossing the rugby league and NFL divide

HOT on the heels of Sam Burgess making his return to rugby league, another one of the clan now looks set to try his hand at switching codes.
Rather than making the conventional league-to-union swap, younger brother Tom is assessing the prospect of switching football codes all together.
The 23-year-old England international is reported to have been trying out with the New York Giants and Buffalo Bills in the National Football League, with the prop being lined up to play as a tight end.
It comes just months after Jarryd Hayne earned a spot on the San Francisco 49ers’ 53-man roster for the current NFL season, although he has since been cut and re-signed to their practise squad after playing five games at running back and rushing for a total of 25 yards.
Burgess broached the subject in a recent interview, saying: “I have shown interest in NFL for a while and I’d spoken to a few of my friends about how I’d love to go there.
“Somehow it’s been turned into I’ve got a contract out there. That’s not the case, there’s nothing there yet and I’ve not spoken to anyone.
“It is something I definitely wouldn’t turn my nose up at, I’d look into it, but there’s nothing there currently.”
So while he is practising with teams, he is by no means certain to earn a deal – particularly as he has a contract with South Sydney Rabbitohs until 2018.
Although American football and rugby league are vastly different games to watch and play, they are not so far apart as might be perceived. Indeed, the late, great Jack Gibson went so far as to describe them as: “Same game, different rules.”
Both evolved from the game of rugby football – rugby league in the industrial north of England, the gridiron game in the colleges of America – and even as early as the 1933, Australian administrator Harry Sunderland and legendary Chicago Bears head coach George Halas were exchanging correspondence over the possibility of a cross-code match.
Then there was the 1953 tour of Australia by wrestling promoter and former NFL player Mike Dimitro’s American All-Stars, where 22 rugby league rookies from the USA – none of whom had ever played the game before – undertook a 26-game tour of Australia and New Zealand.
No-one really attempted to switch both sports until Manfred Moore joined Newtown Jets from the Oakland Raiders in 1977, with the move financed by Australian entrepreneur John Singleton.
Moore, a Super Bowl winner with the Raiders in 1976, had played rugby in college but was otherwise unfamiliar with the sport.
Nevertheless, just 98 days after winning the Super Bowl and with only three training sessions under his belt, Moore stepped out onto the Henson Park field to make his NSWRL bow for the Jets against Western Suburbs.
Starting on the wing, Moore’s debut could hardly have gone better. He capped the 17-10 win by scoring a try – becoming the first person to score a first grade try inn Australia and a touchdown in the NFL – and was immortalised in a photograph of him throwing the ball quarterback-style over the Henson Park main stand.
But the part-time nature of rugby league at the time meant he was unable to get up to speed with the sport as quickly as he needed to, eventually being dropped to the reserve team.
Homesickness affected Moore too and he decided to call it a day after suffering a cut above the eye while playing in the second row, returning to America and signing for the Minnesota Vikings.
The other former NFL player to try his hand at league was Frenchman Philippe Gardent, who signed to play in National League One for the Celtic Crusaders in 2008.
It was not the first time Gardent had switched sports, being almost a CB Fry-esque multi-sport competitor.
His background was in winter sports, representing France in the bobsleigh and being an accomplished skier, but started playing American football at the age of 17 after being asked to by some friends.
Eventually, Gardent was picked up by NFL Europe side Berlin Thunder and then moved to Cologne Centurions, doing enough to earn a shot with the Washington Redskins and playing in pre-season matches for them.
A move to the Carolina Panthers followed, but this proved short-lived and he then trialled with the Montreal Allouettes of the Canadian Football League – itself a subtle variant of the gridiron game.
It was not long before he arrived in Bridgend though as a conversation with compatriot and Crusaders’ fitness and conditioning coach, Thibault Giroud, led to him making the move to rugby league.
Gardent played six times for the Welsh side, lining up at prop, but spent much of the season with the colts team and left at the conclusion of the campaign.
Who knows, perhaps Hayne could yet go on to make his mark in the NFL or Burgess could become a star in both sports. But as history shows, the transition is a hugely difficult one – no matter how talented an athlete one might be.


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