Can an NFL player play rugby

The Harvard Football Team, late 19th century. The team brought rugby to the United States, from which American football would eventually develop.

Next Sunday evening (February 3rd, 0:30 am German time on ProSieben Maxx) hundreds of millions of TV viewers will once again look to the United States to watch the most important game of the year in the other oval ball sport - including some rugby Followers in this country. Even if the spectacle in Miami's “Hard Rock Stadium” no longer has much to do with rugby, both sports have common roots and still have enough similarities to be attractive to fans of the other sport. We look at the complicated relationship between the two types of primeval football in the second half of the 19th century.

Common story

When the American University of Harvard sent their football team to Canada to Montreal's McGill University to hold a friendly game in 1874, the Americans first came into contact with a game that had hitherto been unfamiliar to them. Back in the day, before rules were centrally set by federations and when football was a range of games, most universities had their own rules. While those of the Americans from Harvard were more like today's football, the Canadians played a game that was more like today's rugby because of their closer ties to the colonial power of the time, Great Britain.

The Americans took over the rules of McGill University and from 1875 on they played regularly with their local arch-rival Yale. One of these games was watched by a then Yale student named Walter Kemp - he would later go down in history as the father of American football. Because the universities that played the new European football game now met regularly for joint meetings in order to establish uniform rules. Kemp was present at almost all of the meetings and was instrumental in making the American football version more and more independent. Until his death in 1925, the following were gradually introduced: snaps from the line of scrimmage, the downs, blocks, and finally the forward pass.

This should make the game safer. After a series of matches that ended with a double-digit number of injuries, US President Teddy Roosevelt invited the leading representatives of several universities in 1905. The goal: Football should become safer and in addition to the introduction of protective equipment, the forward pass was introduced in order to be able to overcome defensive lines without brute force.

The result, however, was the final break with rugby. American football as a sport is still very flexible in terms of rule changes and the rules of the game are being adapted much more frequently than in football or rugby. Gridiron developed completely differently - on and off the field: while rugby upheld the amateur ethos for a long time and forbade the payment of players by statute, football was already becoming more professional in the middle of the 20th century.

Can rugby and football learn from each other?

Even if the two sports have developed very far apart to this day, football and rugby can still learn from each other. Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll is arguably the most prominent pioneer in this regard. In 2013 he and his team won the Super Bowl - a large part of his success was linked to a trick he had learned from rugby. He had studied the rugby tackling technique carefully and therefore taught his protégés to tackle with the shoulder instead of ramming the opponent with the helmet in front, as had been learned to date. He also enlisted the help of All Blacks coaches.

The Seahawks' tackling technique, inspired by rugby

Carroll saw the opportunity for a revolution that could make the sport safer and had a video made for other coaches and players that has meanwhile been clicked a million times. In it, he explained to his NFL colleagues that rugby technique was safer and more successful when it came to tackling. In rugby you will also be able to learn from football in the future: For example, according to the consensus, rugby professionals currently have to play far too many games - the NFL season, meanwhile, is limited to 16 season games, plus playoffs. This not only ensures fitter players, but is also commercially lucrative, as each individual game is more valuable due to the artificial scarcity.

Switching from rugby to football and vice versa?

For players, on the other hand, the jump from one oval ball sport to another is not easy. Most recently, Christian Wade and Valentine Holmes (came from the rugby league), two prominent rugby players, failed with their football adventures despite promising beginnings. While tactics and speed dominate in football, endurance and creativity on the field are more important in rugby. However, the jump is not impossible - Nate Ebner, who grew up with rugby and football, made it into the USA's team of seven at the Olympics in 2016 and then won the Super Bowl several times with the New England Patriots.

The story of Nate Ebner - Super Bowl winner and USA international seventh player

Jordan Mailata has also done it, even if the 22-year-old man from Down Under has not yet been an undisputed regular with his NFL team. The Australian was in the youth program of the South Sydney Rabbitohs, the rugby league club of Russel Crowe, but saw no prospects there because of his size but got into the international youth program of the NFL through an agent. Coaches had advised him to lose 50 pounds despite his great runs for the Rabbitohs offspring. Back in the NFL, Mailata's agents say, his size would be in demand.

Within two years, the 2.03 meter tall and 160 kg heavy giant was on the field in the Philadelphia Eagles jersey for the first time as an offensive tackle. The Australian's fitness stats were the best football scouts had seen in a player his size. But the way there was a difficult one for Mailata, who had never watched football himself. In the technically demanding position in the middle of the defensive offensive line, on the one hand, the quarterback must be protected and, on the other hand, breaches must be created for the running backs. Mailata is now doing both better and better and could play the NFL for another 15 years if injured.

The highlights in the rugby league youth team of the Rabbitohs convinced the football scouts

Football and rugby have grown a long way apart in the last 150 years, and rugby is also becoming popular again in the United States recently. Nevertheless, it doesn't hurt even die-hard rugby fans to occasionally look over at American football, for example this Sunday on RAN at ProSieben Maxx - the station that will broadcast the Six Nations next weekend. Even if the discussions about which oval sport is better will not stop anytime soon.

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