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Louis Rees-Zammit, a prominent player in the sport of rugby, would require a fortunate turn of events to successfully transition into the National Football League.
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Louis Rees-Zammit, a prominent player in the sport of rugby, would require a fortunate turn of events to successfully transition into the National Football League.


Ouis Rees-Zammit has joined the trend of rugby players transitioning to the NFL. He joins the likes of Jarryd Hayne and Christian Wade, who also left their professional rugby careers to explore American football.

On Tuesday, Rees-Zammit declared that he will be departing from Wales prior to the Six Nations in order to participate in the NFL’s international player pathway program (IPPP). This 10-week program offers athletes from various countries the opportunity to compete for a place on an NFL team.

The number of international athletes in the National Football League (NFL) has consistently increased in the past few years. We have had a punter from Scotland, linemen from Australia, and a pass-rusher from England, all of whom, similar to Rees-Zammit, had minimal experience with the sport before reaching the top level.

Rees-Zammit’s chances of joining the league are slim, as few IPPP players have had successful careers in the NFL. He is a talented athlete in rugby, but in the NFL, he is just one of many speedy players who are 6ft 2in and weigh 200lbs, coming from top college programs every year. In this league, even the quarterbacks are expected to run.

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While Rees-Zammit is undoubtedly a talented athlete, he is facing stiff competition from numerous other highly skilled athletes who have dedicated years to honing their skills and understanding the intricacies of a complex sport. Standing out in such a competitive environment is a difficult feat. Additionally, mastering the intricacies of a specific position or a team’s playbook adds another layer of challenge.

The NFL playbook usually contains a large number of plays, often in the thousands. The Rams’ renowned 2001 playbook, known for the Greatest Show on Turf, had over 3,000 unique calls. Each play is filled with nuances specific to each position – even a basic passing route can have numerous variations.

This league values athleticism for entry and extensive knowledge of the game for playing opportunities.

With these limitations, it is difficult to determine the specific role that Rees-Zammit will play. In the past, he may have had a chance at being a kick returner, utilizing his speed in open field without needing to fully understand the playbook. However, as the league has implemented stricter rules on kickoff returns due to worries about player well-being, returners are now relegated to smaller roles.

It is challenging to imagine Rees-Zammit playing on defense, given that he started playing the sport at 22. NFL defenses are highly intricate, with a single defensive coverage in the Kansas City Chiefs’ playbook having 650 different variations. It often takes players more than 10 years to fully understand the pre-snap dynamics and their role during gameplay. Even top college players can struggle in the pros due to their difficulty grasping the specifics of an NFL strategy. While the IPPP has been successful in developing pass-rushers, Rees-Zammit’s size may prevent him from fitting into that role.

Usually, when athletes transition to the league, they are placed on the offensive side of the game. This gives them the advantage of having an idea of where the ball is going before it is snapped. Running back is a common position for multi-sport stars to try out. In 2015, Hayne made the switch from rugby to the NFL. He was given a chance to play running back and return specialist for the San Francisco team before being moved between different practice squads.

Jarryd Hayne briefly swapped rugby league for the NFL

Wade also made the switch to rugby. Standing at 5 feet and 9 inches with speedy footwork, he had the quintessential physique for a running back. Despite being shorter than the average NFL player, he was solidly built and had impressive bursts of speed. Just two plays into his debut preseason game, it seemed like teams may have been onto something with the trend of converting rugby players. Wade skillfully received a basic hand-off from his quarterback, planted his foot and swiftly dashed through an opening in the defense.

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Wade’s performance exemplified the issue of athletes switching between sports. When he found open space, Wade displayed the same powerful momentum he had in rugby. However, his success was due to his deviation from the standard strategy. This caught the opposing defense off guard and led to one impressive play. However, consistently ignoring the playbook would not be sustainable. Coaches would not tolerate a player disregarding the team’s plan and opponents would eventually find a way to counter him.

Regardless of where he ultimately plays, Rees-Zammit will encounter similar challenges. It is probable that he will end up as a wide receiver. However, the role of a running back is complex, and playing as a receiver in the NFL is a whole different ballgame.

This is a highly skilled position in the league that combines athleticism with strategic thinking. The player must know where to move on the field, anticipate the quarterback’s throw, and adapt to the opposing team’s defense. This requires quick decision-making and the ability to constantly track the movements of 21 other players on the field. It is considered the most advanced skill in the NFL, as it requires thinking ahead of all the other players on the field.

The top wide receivers in the NFL may not always be the most physically gifted, but they often possess a high level of intelligence. The true standouts are those who have a combination of both qualities. This is not to suggest that Rees-Zammit lacks the intelligence to excel, but his competitors for a spot on the team have likely been studying the intricacies of the game for years, giving them an advantage over the Welsh player.

The most accomplished IPPP applicants so far have excelled in either the offensive or defensive positions. Jordan Mailata previously played rugby in Australia but shifted his focus to American football. In 2018, the Philadelphia Eagles chose Mailata in the seventh round of the draft and he has since established himself as one of the top left tackles in the league.

Mailata’s transformation into a top player in a crucial position for the league is nothing short of remarkable. Standing at an imposing 6 feet 8 inches and 365 pounds, he was already one of the biggest players in the league when he joined the Philadelphia team. Additionally, he was fortunate to be placed in an offensive system that capitalized on his strengths and minimized his weaknesses. It was evident that he had the potential to excel, even though there were few examples to follow. In contrast, Rees-Zammit does not necessarily stand out for his stature.


Mailata was selected at the age of 21 and took some time to develop his skills before getting a chance to play. Rees-Zammit, on the other hand, is almost 23 years old, which is considered older for a rookie in the NFL.

Rees-Zammit’s decision is commendable, as he is at the peak of his abilities but has chosen to leave a sport where he is a prominent figure to join the reserves in a physically demanding sport. Simply making it onto a franchise’s practice squad, which serves as a reserve team, would be an impressive feat. He is sacrificing a secure income for the chance to earn a practice squad salary, which is typically around $200,000 per year but can only be guaranteed on a weekly basis. NFL teams are known for releasing players who they deem unfit.

However, the Welshman’s motivation does not appear to stem from financial gain. According to Rees-Zammit in an interview with the BBC, his goal is not related to rugby, but rather his ambition to fulfill his dream of playing in the NFL.

Although it may seem like a far-off goal, if Rees-Zammit is able to achieve success in the likely position he will play, he will become a trailblazer.

Source: theguardian.com