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This is the reality of how Louis Rees-Zammit can get into the NFL

By PA
Louis Rees-Zammit is the latest rugby to NFL convert hoping to make a successful switch to the biggest sport in the USA

Louis Rees-Zammit has announced he is swapping rugby union for a shot at the NFL.

Gloucester announced on Tuesday they are releasing the British and Irish Lions wing ahead of Wales making their squad selection for the Guinness Six Nations.

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Rees-Zammit has confirmed he is joining the NFL’s International Player Pathway programme and, here, the PA news agency looks at the road to American football being started by the 22-year-old.

What is the IPP programme?

The International Player Pathway has been in place since 2017, allowing select divisions to be allocated players.

Last September it was announced that the NFL is increasing opportunities for international players from next season as part of a league-wide initiative that will see practice squads expanded to 17 players if a qualifying player is included.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers owner and chair of the NFL international committee Joel Glazer said: “The opportunity for all 32 clubs to utilise an additional practice squad roster spot for an international player is a significant step forward in helping to identify, develop and enable more exciting talent from around the world to play in the NFL”.

What does the IPP involve?

Damani Leech, the former chief operating officer of NFL International and current Denver Broncos president, said: “The International Player Pathway programme provides athletes with a viable route to the NFL and an opportunity to further develop their skills”.

Many are evaluated for a potential place in the IPP through the annual NFL International Combine and the 2023 group spent 10 weeks at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, before playing in front of team scouts at a pro day held at the University of South Florida ahead of the NFL Draft.

What are the chances of success?

Last year’s International Combine featured 38 players from 13 countries and, following that, 13 talented athletes were invited to join the IPP programme in the US. Of those, a record eight were added to NFL rosters for the 2023 season.

None of those formed part of the active roster but were eligible for an international player practice squad exemption, allowing them time to develop in an NFL environment.

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What do they earn while trying?

The regular season salary for a practice squad member in 2023 was $216,000 (£170,700).

Who has come through the IPP system?

Washington Commanders defensive end Efe Obada is a graduate, leaving England and eventually joining Carolina Panthers in 2017 through the IPP programme before going on to Buffalo Bills and then DC. There are a handful of IPP players on active rosters in the 2023 season, including Philadelphia Eagles offensive tackle Jordan Mailata. The 26-year-old was a burgeoning rugby league player in Australia before moving to the NFL, where he has flourished and featured in Super Bowl LVII.

Who else has tried to make it?

Former England Sevens player Alex Gray was part of the IPP and spent a period with Atlanta Falcons. Christian Scotland-Williamson spent two years with Pittsburgh Steelers after playing as lock for Worcester.

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Christian Wade was the most famous former rugby player from these shores to try his luck in the NFL, being allocated as a running back to Buffalo Bills in 2019. The one-cap England wing left last year and is now back in rugby union with Racing 92 in France. None of that triumvirate made a regular season appearance.

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Poorfour 4 hours ago
The AI advantage: How the next two Rugby World Cups will be won

AI models are really just larger and less transparent variants of the statistical models that have been in use since Moneyball was invented. And a big difference between the Icahn centre’s results and AI today is that ChatGPT-like Large Language Models can explain (to some degree) how they reached their conclusions. In terms of what impact they will have, I suspect it will have two primary impacts: 1) It will place a premium on coaching creativity 2) It will lead to more selections that baffle fans and pundits. Analysts will be able to run the models both ways: they will see their own team’s and players’ weaknesses and strengths as well as the opposition’s. So they will have a good idea at what the other team will be targeting and the decisive difference may well be which coaches are smart enough to think of a gameplan that the other side didn’t identify and prepare for. For players, it places a premium on three key things: 1) Having a relatively complete game with no major weaknesses (or the dedication to work on eliminating them) 2) Having the tactical flexibility to play a different game every week 3) Having a point of difference that is so compelling that there isn’t a defence for it. (3) is relatively rare even among pro players. There have been only a handful of players over the years where you knew what they were going to do and the problem was stopping it - Lomu would be the classic example. And even when someone does have that, it’s hard to sustain. Billy Vunipola in his prime was very hard to stop, but fell away quite badly when the toll on his body began to accumulate. So coaches will look for (1) - a lack of exploitable weaknesses - and (2) - the ability to exploit others’ weaknesses - ahead of hoping for (3), at least for the majority of the pack. Which is likely to mean that, as with the original Moneyball, competent, unshowy players who do the stuff that wins matches will win out over outrageous talents who can’t adapt to cover their own weaknesses. Which will leave a lot of people on the sidelines sputtering over the non-inclusion of players whose highlights reels are spectacular, but whose lowlight reels have been uncovered by AI… at least until the point where every fan has access to a sporting analysis AI.

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