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From rugby to NFL and back again - Hayden Smith sets sights on big things at Saracens

Curtis Brinkley (No36) and Antoine Cason (No20) of the San Diego Chargers take down Hayden Smith (No82) of the New York Jets. Photo by Jeff Zelevansky /Getty Images Curtis Brinkley (No36) and Antoine Cason (No20) of the San Diego Chargers take down Hayden Smith (No82) of the New York Jets. Photo by Jeff Zelevansky /Getty Images

Thursday, December 12, 2013
5:02 PM

There are surprisingly few rugby players that have made the switch from union to American football but Saracens’ newest recruit Hayden Smith is an even rarer breed that has done it and swapped back.

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Saracens team-mates Chris Wyles (left) and Hayden Smith of the USA show their dejection after the 2011 Rugby World Cup Pool C match against Italy. Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty ImagesSaracens team-mates Chris Wyles (left) and Hayden Smith of the USA show their dejection after the 2011 Rugby World Cup Pool C match against Italy. Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Before him, the 1965 Triple Crown-winning Welshman Terry Price (Buffalo Bills) and former leading Scotland marksman Gavin Hastings (Scottish Claymores in NFL Europe) converted from rugby, while Richard Tardits moved from the NFL, with the New England Patriots in the nineties, to play for French rugby side Biarritz and the US in the 1999 World Cup.

Neither were the sports that Smith first excelled at though, as his 6ft 6ins frame lent itself to basketball and he earned a US college scholarship that took him from his native Australia to play in Denver, Colorado.

Once in America, and while waiting to graduate in 2008, he tried his hand at rugby with a local team, and before the year was out Sarries had signed him to an academy contract.

In 2011 he qualified by residency in America to play international rugby for the US Eagles and started all four games in the last World Cup. By then the National Football League had taken an interest and he opted afterwards to leave rugby for the bright lights of the New York Jets as a tight end.

(L-R) Chris Wyles, Brad Barritt, Hayden Smith, Richard Wigglesworth and Dave Strettle of Saracens pose with the Premiership trophy in 2011. Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images(L-R) Chris Wyles, Brad Barritt, Hayden Smith, Richard Wigglesworth and Dave Strettle of Saracens pose with the Premiership trophy in 2011. Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images

Smith revealed that, despite the physical nature of boths sports, it’s no surprise that the list of men to have played both sports at the top level is small.

“It’s not an easy thing to do,” the 28-year-old said.

“There are a lot fewer similarities between the sports than you might think.

“I really think the only similarity is when you have the ball in your hand and are trying to avoid tackles.

Hayden Smith of Saracens is tackled by Alessandro Zanni of Benetton Treviso during a Heineken Cup match in 2012. Photo by Marco Luzzani/Getty ImagesHayden Smith of Saracens is tackled by Alessandro Zanni of Benetton Treviso during a Heineken Cup match in 2012. Photo by Marco Luzzani/Getty Images

“If you were on defence [in American football], having to tackle a ball carrier is certainly similar but everything else you do to that stage is very different.

“Then football has different rules – you can tackle someone in the air, the helmets the pads, it really changes the nature of things.”

Both sports have recently seen the issue of concussion raised, but this side of the Atlantic many of the US sport’s detractors criticise it for the helmets and pads that players wear, compared to the lack of protection in rugby.

But despite Smith having experienced the big collisions in both disciplines he admits that the argument over which sport is the toughest is a debate that’s hard to settle.

“I don’t know if I could ever put that myth to bed because people will always have their opinions,” he said.

“There are huge hits in football as there are in rugby. In rugby you’re making tackles as well as being tackled and it’s more of a work-load but there are just some absolutely massive hits in football as well.

“The helmets and pads, far from making it softer, probably make it a little more dangerous.

“It’s very much an open debate but you’re certainly involved in more collisions when you’re playing rugby.”

Of course, with Smith’s upbringing in Australia he was well aware of rugby, even if his original path was basketball, and his quick adaptaion to XV-man game suggests a level of natural talent.

The transition to American football, however, saw him thrown in at the deep end against men that had played the game since childhood - and he admits that life in the NFL was a more intricate challenge than his original cross-sport switch.

“[American] Football is certainly a sport that is incredibly complicated and there was a very steep learning curve to go from never having played it, to playing at that level,” he said.

“It was something that I managed to get my head around eventually but there was a lot of academic work and understanding that had to happen before.

“I think rugby is probably more of a natural game where you read and react. There are a lot of skills associated with the various components of the sport but overall it’s not quite as complicated in the way it’s put together.

“It’s easier to just get out and play but in [American] football you have to do the work and understand what the heck is going on before you can go out and play.

“I wouldn’t say I was naturally disposed to be better at one than the other but if you put in hard work and commit yourself to something then you can be good at it no matter what it is. I’ve just been fortunate to do it with both.

“It’s been a long and varied journey, but it’s been fantastic. There are so many great memories and amazing experiences I’ve had through the many different sports, so I’m just incredibly lucky and fortunate to be able to do what I’ve been able to do – but it’s certainly not over.

“There is a lot to still achieve and I’ve got my sights set firmly on trying to achieve things here and help Saracens.”

Smith was part of north Londoners’ 2011 Premiership winning squad and he returns to what is currently the dominant side in the English game as they sit top of the table with just one defeat to their name.

“It’s a very talented squad that’s going to be pushing for success over the next couple of years,” he said, adding: “I just feel very lucky to be able to come back and be a part of that.”

In his 18 months away from Saracens Smith has been no stranger to their progress, revealing that there was good coverage of rugby in the States as the sport continues to grow over there.

He said: “I’ve been able to follow most of the games this season – they’re on TV over in the States.

“The game is steadily growing. It’s on subscription but you do have access to rugby games, which the broadcast on the weekends.

“They just had a successful tour with the Maori All Blacks over there, where they sold out a stadium in Philedelphia.

“The USA also did well in beating Georgia on a return leg in Georgia, so there have been some positive results so far for the Eagles and I think the American public, slowly but surely, is becoming exposed to the game.”

Indeed, if Smith can return to the heights of two years ago there is the possibility of playing again for the US Eagles in the 2015 World Cup - though he admits that’s not his focus at the moment.

“I’ve been very privileged to represent the Eagles and it’s certainly something that I’ll look to do,” he said.

“My focus is tomorrow and getting myself back in the game of rugby and performing at the level that I need to, but sure, looking forward, that’s a great prospect and something that, if all goes well, it will be fantastic to be involved in.

“My main focus is on the here and now.”

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