Anytime anyone has ever mentioned potential rugby-to-NFL converts, Christian Wade’s name has tended to be close, if not at the very top of a rather brief list.
He is one of the few rugby players to exhibit the highest levels of speed, acceleration and footwork that are required at the NFL’s skill positions, most notably running back and wide receiver.
Last week, the news broke that Wade had quit Wasps and was intent on forging a career for himself in the NFL, after having fallen out of love with rugby.
Neither the club nor his director of rugby Dai Young have confirmed that news just yet, but it seems as if it is just a matter of time before the whole thing becomes official and Wade is released from his obligations with the West Midlands club.
If true, that Wade has fallen out of love with rugby, you can only admire his ambition and self-belief to go and try to make this dream happen, but there are no two ways about it, it is an extremely risky move.
Wade is not the first to try this and there is an abundance of cautionary tales for him to pay attention to, in order for him to beat the odds and stick on an NFL roster moving forward.
Former Saracens lock Hayden Smith managed to get a shot with the New York Jets, where he had one reception for 16 yards, before returning to rugby and a second stint with Saracens.
Lawrence Okoye, an Olympic discus thrower with a background in rugby, bounced around the practice squads of the San Francisco 49ers, Arizona Cardinals, Dallas Cowboys, Chicago Bears, Miami Dolphins and Jets before trying his luck in Canada with the Montreal Alouettes.
Former England 7s star Alex Gray and ex-Worcester Warriors lock Christian Scotland-Williamson are currently on the practice squads of the Atlanta Falcons and Pittsburgh Steelers respectively, with both part of the International Player Pathway program that the NFL has introduced.
Rugby league has had slightly more success transitioning players to the sport, with Jordan Mailata and Jarryd Hayne the notable examples, although Tom Burgess, the brother of ex-Bath back rower Sam, had trials with NFL teams that ultimately came to naught.
Mailata was drafted in the 7th round by the Philadelphia Eagles this year and was put on the active roster for the first time at the weekend, whilst Hayne made the 53-man roster of the 49ers in 2015 as a hybrid running back and punt returner.
Unfortunately for Wade, he faces two key challenges that those two players were able, to a certain degree, to mitigate.
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Firstly, and perhaps most significantly, is Wade’s age.
At 27 years old, he is six years older than the average player coming into the NFL through the draft, all of whom already have a solid foundation in football, having played at the collegiate and high school levels. It is easy for an NFL franchise to commit to developing a 21-year-old with an already extensive knowledge of the sport, but to start from scratch with a 27-year-old is a very different ball game.
Wade could well benefit from the International Player Pathway program, which allows participating teams an extra spot on their practice squads purely for an international player, something which Wade would qualify for. This is a two-year stint at best, however, with players no longer eligible for the practice squad after that.
If he had failed to show he has what it takes to be on a 53-man roster at the end of those two years, when he would be 29, then that could be the dream over.
Mailata has come into the league as a 21-year-old and it’s clear why the Eagles invested a draft pick in him, as they see someone they could potentially build around for 10+ years. No matter the electric ability Wade brings, he cannot offer that same longevity, especially as he will be playing a position that requires the top-end speed and agility that can tail off in an athlete in their 30’s.
Hayne didn’t have age on his side, either, with the Australian also entering the league as a 27-year-old, but crucially he had a size advantage over Wade.
Hayne weighed in at around 100kg during his time with the 49ers, which is not particularly impressive for the NFL, but it was enough to convince coaches that he could bear the burden of running the football between the tackles and taking some of the hits that get dished out on a daily basis in the NFL. As for Wade, he was tipping the scales at around 86kg with Wasps this season.
Ultimately, Hayne’s added weight didn’t stop him from fumbling the football, something which held him back and arguably prompted him to turn away from the sport after just a single season. His NFL ‘retirement’ in 2016 preceded a return to rugby league, as well as a stint representing the Fiji 7s team.
It’s a brave career move from Wade.
Unlike some of his contemporaries that have made the switch, such as Gray and Scotland-Williamson, a place on an NFL practice squad is not necessarily a pay rise for Wade. As a star performer in the Gallagher Premiership who is available throughout international windows, Wade’s value is high on the rugby market. He could be making significantly more in rugby than he would on a practice squad, albeit also facing a much more attritional workload.
If Wade is to find financial fortune in the move, it will have to be by cracking a 53-man roster.
All of that said, if this is a move that Wade has been dreaming of for life satisfaction reasons and not financial ones, then the outlook is a much more optimistic one.
Let’s say the transition doesn’t come as quickly or as easily as Hayne’s did and that Wade spends the next two seasons on a practice squad. If he’s doing what he loves, who are we to critique that move?
And there is scope for Wade to make a success of this.
He does possess elite-level speed and footwork, not to mention an ability to maintain speed through sharp turns. His endurance will blow most NFL players’ levels out of the water and his ball-handling skills certainly won’t hurt his prospects, either.
A slightly smaller frame doesn’t preclude him from featuring as a running back, but it would likely be reserved for third-down, heavy-passing situations, where he could free himself from the traffic of the trenches and become a threat in the passing game. Slot receiver roles aren’t out of the question, either, although the learning curve there will be even higher than it is at running back.
Where Wade will have to carve out a role for himself is on special teams.
Splash plays as a kick and punt returner are what will earn him a spot on a 53-man roster, whilst he can also contribute as an effective gunner thanks to his speed and tackling technique from rugby.
The odds might be stacked against him, but few would have predicted the scrawny wing from the London Wasps academy would go on to score 82 Premiership tries when he first emerged, so Wade does have form in upsetting the odds.
As the highest profile rugby union player to try the transition in this latest trend of cross-sport converts, eyes will be firmly fixed on Wade as he attempts to do what his former sport has yet been unable to do and that’s crack the United States.
Pragmatism says that if you want to make a success of this as a rugby player, you need to go early and give yourself time, ideally with a couple of years in college first.
Romanticism says he has the raw tools and by giving up what he currently has in rugby, clearly the desire and determination to see it through.
Whichever side you sit on, there’s no doubt Wade’s trans-Atlantic journey is one we all watch with eagerness and intrigue over the coming months and years.
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