The Runner Sports

NFL Meet Rugby League – A Match Made In Heaven

Alright NFL, let me introduce you to your cousin, rugby league. Some refer to rugby league as ‘The game they play in Heaven’ and while the argument as to which code that phrase belongs to rages on, one thing is for certain, the NFL and rugby league are a match made in Heaven.

If you are a fan of American football when you watch a rugby league match, be it the National Rugby League in Australia or Super League in the Europe, you’ll find an odd familiarity with the sport. What football refers to as downs, rugby refers to as phases; in football you have four downs to get at least 10 yards to continue the drive, in rugby league you get six phases to score or you turn the ball over “on downs” unless you kick it away.

Now, this isn’t like a punt in football, it’s more like a designed play looking to move the ball forward in an attempt to recover the ball in the “end zone” or try zone while understanding you’ll likely lose possession. In other words, it’s an organized play often deteriorating into chaos. It’s a blast.

So why should the NFL care about rugby league? For one, rugby league is a great way to develop tacklers and observe athletes in an environment as close to football without it being football. In essence, it would become a minor league development avenue while tapping into another fan market. It’s also a summer sport in the Southern Hemisphere and could be here as well giving the NFL that key offseason market opportunity to keep fans engaged as well as gain new fans.

The NFL is popular in rugby league nations like Australia, New Zealand, and various European countries. Football loving nations like Germany, Poland, and Russia have growing or established rugby leagues and extremely large humans built for both rugby league and football. Jarryd Hayne is the most famous crossover athlete from rugby league to the NFL with the San Francisco 49ers but NRL players Valentine Holmes and Jason Taumalolo are attempting the crossover as well and more will come. Imagine if they had a place to go when they didn’t make it in the NFL, someplace where NFL scouts wouldn’t have to travel half way around the world to observe their development while they continue to play a sport they’re more comfortable with.

The popularity of rugby league, with NFL backing, is nearly assured in America as the style of play is similar in look to football and rugby league gives American’s what they want: huge hits, pomp and circumstance (watch rival match, aka derby, a NRL or Super League intro sometime), and flat-out straight line impact. The Toronto Wolfpack are already a big hit in Canada and have Super League officials eager to see them climb the ladder of competition toward promotion. Here in the United States, I can almost hear the echoes of John Madden’s “Boom!” or the now banned tagline from the old NFL Primetime “he got…Jacked Up!” calls during the match and in the post-game coverage. It’s gloriously brutal. Imagine the NFL and MMA had a baby; ok…maybe not that violent but pretty violent.

“I don’t want to insult the Australians (but) I am like, ‘These guys are some damn idiots’. Nobody plays football without pads every week for three, four or five months and don’t make any money. At least in the NFL, you are going to kill yourself and … you get to be a millionaire after it’s over.”
– NBA legend Charles Barkley

The mechanism for the NFL to get involved with rugby league already exists. The United States Rugby League (USARL) is a collection of amateur and semi-professional rugby league clubs on the East Coast stretching from New York State to Florida but they are also currently a loose assembly of owners guided by a laissez-faire Chairman. Many owners seem motivated to move forward in rugby league development but they need the marketing power and leadership of an organization like the NFL and both parties would benefit from the “merger.” If not the USARL then the National Rugby Football League (NRFL), a failed attempt to convert football players into a rugby union competition who would likely welcome the reinvigorating touch of the NFL even if it did mean a change in code.

If not the USARL or NRFL the NFL has the power, financial stability, and wherewithal to bring in experts to simply start-up their own. Either way, this is a match made in Heaven and will be a missed opportunity for the NFL if they fail to capitalize especially with the Rugby League World Cup set to be hosted here in North America in 2025. There are players to be developed, fans to gain, and money to be made.

Roger Goodell, please listen to me…Pete Rozelle built the NFL and Paul Tagliabue made it the mega-industry it is…let this rugby league initiative be your legacy.

Jason Graves
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Jason Graves

USA Rugby Writer at The Runner Sports
Just a guy with a passion for rugby. Critical thinker and problem solver who likes to write. My sports writing role model was an objective fan, the great Mike Royko!
Jason Graves
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  • If the NFL has made one thing clear they have zero interest in building up anything that can be seen as a competition to the brand. While they could make money in the short run building up rugby (while unlikely to ever overtake) runs the direct risk of losing your existing brand viewers and millions of dollars; they already spent half the year last year panicking about ratings. Maybe they like rugby better. You would never see them split their time and money for something that can only detract from their bottom line. The owners would never allow the initiative, Goodell would be shooed out before this came anywhere near to being a concept. Union and league are competing heads and interests, we can’t even get those two to work together, you wouldn’t see the NFL welcome them with open arms.

    Also, more so than any other sport, the NFL already dominates the airwaves year round. September to February you’re tuning in every week, from February to April we talk nothing but draft and obsess over the future of teams with free agency as well. From then on you talk training camp and competitions to make rosters right into the new season. People flock to training camp we eagerly await Hard Knocks. At this point the NFL doesn’t have an offseason where they worry they’re not in their viewers’ minds.

    Also good luck getting league players to swap code, there’s a reason they’re playing league and not union to begin with.

    • Jason Graves

      Admittedly this is a very radical and unlikely concept from a rugby league fan hoping someone influential reads it and says “Hmmmmmm…”

      I’m not sure why the NFL has such low self-esteem despite there incomparable success but league poses no threat; however, what better way to find new talent like the three players I identified and control the slow-growing league fan-base by controlling the Stateside product?

      Also, several players change codes all the time between league and union but I’m suggesting the NRFL swap codes to adopt league versus continued failed attempts at union.

      • Oh I’m not saying there’s never a player that doesn’t change code but largely it’s made up of bodies of people that believe their current code is the real way rugby should be played. I’d wager there are more rugby players, fans, observers that stand by one code over the other than you have in which appreciate each for their differences.

        And it has nothing to do with the league having a low self esteem. It’s a buttload of time and money for a development pipeline that’s not actually perfecting the talents they seek. What makes the minor league system work in MLB and the NHL? These guys are playing the same positions and the same games they’re hoping to be playing in a few years. There’s a lot of similarities between league and the NFL, but most teams would consider it a wasted amount of development beyond the athleticism.

        I was happy to to see Hayne make that jump but you also have to remember that he was promptly cut without major production in the league. He failed to cut the tight gaps as a RB and even in a punt return situation did little to stand out in the discipline from guys who’ve been returning football punts their whole lives, which was a clear sign that the athleticism certainly carried over but the needed skills and finesse just proved to be too different.