10 Apr 2019

Will any All Blacks follow Valentine Holmes to the NFL?

5:19 pm on 10 April 2019

Opinion - Well done to Valentine Holmes.

Australian rugby league player Valentine Holmes.

Valentine Holmes. Photo: Photosport

The man with the Hollywood name that now stands on the cusp of an NFL career.

He's the second big name NRL player to crack it into the world's most lucrative sporting league, after Jarryd Hayne in 2016.

He's also taken advantage of the NFL's International Player Pathway Program, so does this mean we may see an All Black pulling on pads and a helmet any time soon?

It's not that daft a concept, and not just for the obvious reasons either. The Pathway Program is specifically set up to entice prospective players from around the world to attend a privately run training camp, after which they're allocated out to NFL teams if it's felt as though they are suitable.

Suitability is clearly not just based on on-field talent. Hayne managed to crack the top 50 overall players in jersey sales during his stint, which is a remarkable achievement given how comparatively brief it was.

The Australian market was overwhelmingly accountable for that figure, so branching out into new markets gives a team like the Jets the opportunity to build an previously unlikely fanbase.

Unlikely because the Jets' previous season saw them go 4-12 and finish bottom of the AFC East division and fire their coach.

While it's fair to say they're a pretty unfashionable team, spare a thought for Holmes' fellow Pathway graduate Christian Wade.

The former England and British & Irish Lions winger has been picked up by the Buffalo Bills, a team that makes headlines more for the often hilariously drunken and disgusting antics of their fans rather than anything they do on the field.

Both men have an uphill battle to get anywhere near the regular season playing roster, though.

While Hayne did impress in his pre-season performances as a kick returner, opportunities dried up as soon as he recorded a few fumbles and was labelled too much of a liability in the high stakes reality of the NFL.

Within a year, he was back in Australia plying his trade in the NRL again.

Everything about both his and Holmes' experience so far is that it's a break in transmission of their incredibly successful league careers.

Hayne was once the indisputably best player in the game at one stage, and Holmes scored an unbelievable 11 tries in back to back test matches.

While the NFL is indeed open to letting international players get a taste, the exceptionally conservative nature of its coaching and man management will always favour someone who has been brought through their high school and college systems if things start to look the slightest bit shaky.

With sabbatical clauses written in to key All Black contracts, it's not too much of a stretch to think that it's just a matter of time before one will follow the lead of the NRL players and give American Football a crack.

Rieko Ioane celebrates scoring a try against South Africa.

Could someone like Rieko Ioane swap the black jersey for an NFL kit one day? Photo: PHOTOSPORT

It is worth mentioning that Holmes and Hayne both took a massive pay cut to follow their 'dream' (around 75%, according to reports), but it is still a far more preferable gamble than the only other real way to get close to a lucrative long-term NFL contract - committing to a college scholarship and hopefully playing your way into being able to take your chances with the annual draft.

There has been talk for decades of rugby players making the switch to the gridiron, most notably interest in Jonah Lomu by the Dallas Cowboys in 1996.

While New Zealand-born Riki Ellison was a constant starter for the 49ers in the 1980's, the closest any former New Zealand rugby player has come to forging a pro career was Auckland-born Paul Lasike.

Lasike was originally at Brigham Young University on a rugby scholarship before switching to football and being signed as a free agent by the Arizona Cardinals in 2015.

By 2017, his NFL experience was over when he was cut by the Chicago Bears. Lasike is now a starting centre in the USA Eagles rugby team, and will more than likely line up for them in the World Cup later in the year.

Getting into the NFL is a cut-throat business. Holmes deserves the best of luck, if nothing else, for his audacious punt on trying to make it.

But unlike virtually every other football player in his position, he has a very secure safety net in place - if it does end in him getting cut then there'll be no shortage of offers to come back to rugby league.

That alone is enough to probably at least plant the idea in an up and coming rugby player on this side of the Tasman as to how to play things when it comes to negotiating a contract in the coming years.

*Frustration at his own shortcomings as a rugby player and multiple concussions have left Jamie with an innate ability to find fault with rules, players, matches and sporting bodies alike.

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