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The 4 rugby players confirmed in this year's NFL Player Pathway program

By Ian Cameron
Darragh Leader during a Connacht Rugby squad training session at The Sportsground in Galway. (Photo By Brendan Moran/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

No less than four rugby union players – of various shapes, sizes and abilities – have been confirmed in his year’s NFL International Player Pathway program.

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Introduced back in 2017, is an initiative aimed at broadening the league’s global reach by identifying and developing international talents.

Notably, the program has led to some success stories, with a few participants making it onto NFL practice squads and, in rare instances, active rosters.

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However, cynics might argue about the program’s underlying motives. While the IPP does open doors for a handful of international athletes, the program’s scale and success rate suggest that its primary objective might lean more towards marketing the NFL globally rather than a serious and sustained effort to scout and develop non-American talent.

In truth, Wales winger Louis Rees-Zammit stands out like a sore thumb amid this year’s inductees. The reality is that the IPP class of 2024 – whether rugby players or not – faces a mountain to climb to adjust to the sport. There are precedents, however. Former rugby union players like Jamie Gillan, Hayden Smith, Daniel Adongo, Christian Wade, Stephen Paea, Lawrence Okoye and Alex Gray have all enjoyed various levels of success in the league in recent years.

Louis Rees-Zammit
Unlike Christian Wade, who entered the programme in his late twenties, Louis Rees-Zammit is the first elite rugby union player in his prime to have a crack at the NFL. A Welsh winger known for his extraordinary pace and scoring ability, ‘LRZ’ has made a significant impact in the sport in a relatively short period. Emerging from the Gloucester academy, he made his professional debut at the age of 18 and quickly established himself as a prolific try-scorer in the Gallagher Premiership.

Louis Rees-Zammit
Louis Rees-Zammit – PA
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His performances in the English top flight led to international recognition, and he became a key player for the Wales national team, earning accolades for his performances in the Six Nations and other international fixtures. His father played American football and Rees-Zammit maintains that he has been harbouring dreams of playing the sport himself since he was a child.

The 6’3, 98kg winger is aiming to cut it as a running back or wider receiver, although he may end up a punt returner in a similar vein to Jarryd Hayne. While he has the physical tools, mastering the notoriously technical playbooks of an NFL side might prove a stumbling block, as it has done for others.

Harry Mallinder
Harry Mallinder, a former England U20s star, has shown versatility in positions like centre, fly-half, and full-back but is aiming to make it as a punter in the NFL. Beginning his career with Northampton Saints, Mallinder quickly rose through the ranks, showcasing his skills in the Premiership and European competitions.

His leadership and playmaking abilities were further recognized at the youth international level, where he captained England U20s to success in the World Rugby U20 Championship, but he failed to win a senior cap for England. Once touted as the potential ‘Golden Boy’ of English rugby, he left for Japan in 2021 after eight years with Northampton.

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With his rugby union career stalling at the age of 27, the 6’5, 108kg Mallinder is looking to show he has what it takes to make it as a punter in the NFL.

NFL International Player Pathway
Harry Mallinder

Darragh Leader
Irish full-back Darragh Leader had been a solid performer in rugby union, primarily with Connacht Rugby. Known for his reliable play at the back and adept kicking skills, Leader is aiming to make it as a punter.

The 6’3, 100kg Galway man will also have a little bit of an upper hand in this area in that his brother Tadgh has been running an NFL program, aimed at developing Irish sporting talent into potential as college football and NFL kickers. Darragh has been involved in the program himself as a tutor and big brother Tadgh – who himself has played American football at a high following his rugby playing days – will be right alongside him having been recently offered the position of lead coach for the International Player Pathway kicking/punting group.

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George Smith (Coventry Rugby)
Second-row George Smith – now formerly of Championship side Coventry Rugby – is aiming to make it as an offensive lineman. Although not nearly as widely known as his namesake – the legendary Wallabies flanker – this George Smith had been starting to make a name for himself in the English second flight.

At 6’9 and around 130kg, his play was characterized by physicality and lineout work and had a growing reputation as a reliable and up-and-coming player in the second-row position. While he has the physical acumen, time will tell if he has what it takes to follow in the path of Jordan Mailata, who has now successfully made the transition from NRL age-grade player to regular in the NFL for the Philidelphia Eagles. In his early 20s, time is on Smith’s side.

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Comments

3 Comments
J
Joseph 151 days ago

You write about it almost as if the NFL is a progression beyond test match rugby. I’m getting sick and tired of being confronted with it every time I come to this site. Good luck to whoever wants to go there, but please spare the rest of us the continued exposure to that visual pollution.

T
Thomas 151 days ago

This entire NFL gate can’t be over soon enough.

Good riddance, LRZ, make it count. I wish him success, but he’s put himself out of the scope of rugby interest.

So let’s turn the page and focus on rugby players and rugby matches.

C
Conor 152 days ago

Can you please check the latest i think you are missing at least 2

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Shaylen 13 hours ago
Brumbies the best team in Australia but still nothing to show for it

The Brumbies have been the strongest side in Australia for a long time and that was down to their forwards and set piece which has always been good and has always been able to dominate their Australian counterparts. This year the lack of maul tries and also the lack of a stable scrum has been a real problem which was also something Nick alluded to in his article this week about the creaking brumbies tight five. Home advantage is key as you say and the Brumbies must find a way to score more bonus points. If the Brumbies are really serious about winning a title they need to do what Kiwi sides at the top do. They need to smash every Aus side with a bonus point at home while claiming losing bonus points in every game they lose and denying their rivals bonus points. In their 3 losses in NZ this year they were smashed. They only scored 60 tries which is middle of the road, their scrum came in at 73% which was one of the worst in the comp, tackle success at just 83% which was right at the bottom and in terms of metres, clean breaks, carries, offloads and rucks built they were in the middle plus they had the most yellows. They basically were just not dominant enough wile they can improve their discipline. They excelled at kicking and won plenty of lineout ball plus their rucks were secure at 97%. Not sure about turnovers but they weren’t bad there. They just need to be more clinical and give away less and they will give themselves the best chance to win the title.

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