MELBOURNE (Reuters) - NFL hopeful Jarryd Hayne showed he was a hard man to bring down in his first two pre-season games for the San Francisco 49ers. Putting a stop to the hype surrounding the Australian rugby league international could prove equally challenging.
Hayne’s bid to break into the 49ers’ 53-man roster has captivated his home nation since his tearful announcement last October that he was quitting a wildly successful rugby career to pursue his American dream.
His tackle-busting runs against the Houston Texans and Dallas Cowboys have taken the hype to a new level, while adding a breath of fresh air to a franchise that has had to deal with the sudden departure of former coach Jim Harbaugh and the retirements of a number of players.
Hayne’s breath-taking plays in the number 38 jersey would be familiar to fans of Australia’s National Rugby League where Hayne was one of the game’s highest paid players in the sport’s richest competition.
A two-time winner of the NRL’s ‘Dally M’ medal for the most valuable player, Hayne would often make a mockery of opposition defenses with his jinking runs and his raised-arm celebrations after scoring tries became known as the ‘Hayne Plane’.
Though he was hailed for his bravery in quitting the NRL, many thought his bid was a pipe-dream that would ultimately see him make a sheepish return to his home-town Sydney after a few months.
San Francisco’s announcement in March that they had signed Hayne to a three-year deal as an unrestricted free agent took the Australian a step closer to his dream but winning a spot on the final roster would represent an extraordinary achievement for a 27-year-old with no prior experience of the sport.
The Australian’s gutsy tilt has also won admiration in the United States, prompting 49ers coach Jim Tomsula to try to hose down the hype.
“Obviously the guy is doing a nice job,” he told San Francisco radio.
“When you think about it it’s kind of cool. I’ve been kind of peeing on that parade, but you know what I’m saying. We don’t need to put the cart before the horse.”
Hayne, who has his best chance of making it as a running back or a punt returner, looks a certainty of making the next cut when NFL rosters are reduced to a maximum of 75 players on Sept. 1.
D-Day for Hayne and the dozens of other pre-season hopefuls lands a few days later on Sept. 5, when the lists are cut to their final 53.
A number of Australians have carved out careers in the NFL since track and field athlete Colin Ridgeway broke ground with a handful of games for the Dallas Cowboys in the 1960s.
Indigenous football code Australian Rules, which places a premium on kicking skills, has produced a number of NFL punters including San Diego Chargers Hall of Famer Darren Bennett, and Saverio Rocca became the NFL’s oldest rookie at the age of 33 when he debuted for the Philadelphia Eagles in 2007.
No Australian in top-flight rugby league has ever made the switch but Hayne has shown himself a likely candidate for a Cinderella story.
He was raised in government housing in the hard-scrabble suburb of Minto in Sydney’s working class west and joined the NRL with a humble goal of being able to afford to buy his mother a house.
An NFL contract could deliver his mum an entire apartment block, though Tomsula said Hayne remains just part of “the conversation” at this stage.
The conversation is fast becoming deafening.
“American football commentators are calling it the story of the pre-season, but it’s rapidly turning into the sport story of the year here in Australia,” one local pundit wrote in a Brisbane newspaper on Tuesday.
Editing by Amlan Chakraborty