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Headlines were made around the world this week as one of Rugby League’s biggest stars, Sam Burgess, announced that he would make the switch to Rugby Union, in an attempt to make the England team before the oncoming 2015 Rugby World Cup. Burgess is not the first, nor will he be the last, to make this transition, but there is a sport-to-sport road that is far less travelled, and that is from rugby to football, or more precisely, the NFL. It’s a far harder transition than switching between the codes of rugby, as there are even vaster differences in the two sports, but the physical and technical ability that some rugby players possess could make even the most conservative GMs in the NFL salivate. So, without further ado, here are the eight rugby players who could be just as big stars on the field, as they are on the pitch.
Manu Tuilagi – Leicester Tigers and England – Centre to Running Back
At just 22 years of age, Tuilagi has already amassed 21 caps (appearances) for England, and has cemented himself as one of the most exciting players to watch in the game. He has tremendous power, a deceptive turn of pace, and low centre of gravity, all of which could see him become an elite running back in the right scheme. Given the preference for big hits in the NFL, often at the risk of missing a tackle, Tuilagi could potentially be in the Marshawn Lynch league of breaking tackles, and would have the speed to hurt teams that failed to bring him down at the first attempt.
George North – Northampton Saints and Wales – Winger to Wide Receiver
North is a behemoth at 6”4 and 240 pounds, with pace that belies his powerful frame. He scores tries freely at both club and international level, and could potentially do the same with touchdowns in the NFL. Strong in the air and possessing a safe pair of hands, North would be the perfect target in end zone, as well as having the strength to take contested catches across the middle. He would potentially need to work on his jumping ability however, as it is a skill not frequently used on the rugby pitch.
Pierre Spies – Vodacom Bulls and South Africa – Number 8 to Tight End
The South African could make a dynamic receiving tight end in the NFL thanks to his soft hands, 6”4 frame, and ability to run 100m in just 10.7 seconds. He has the pace to be a very real deep threat, and the strength to make shorter, contested catches on third downs. Blocking is a fairly alien concept to rugby players, but at 245 pounds, Spies will be no pushover, especially if he is out making blocks in the open field, as opposed to against a 300 pound defensive lineman at the line of scrimmage.
Christian Wade – London Wasps and England – Winger to Slot Receiver
The London Wasps and England flyer is almost a carbon copy of the Seattle Seahawks’ Percy Harvin. Wade has the acceleration and footwork to excel in the slot, and would have the potential to turn a 5-10 yard reception into a big play every time he gets his hands on the ball. Of all the players listed, Wade would likely find the transition easiest, as learning to run routes would be the biggest challenge he would face in adapting to football.
Ben Tameifuna – Chiefs and New Zealand Under 20s – Prop to Defensive Tackle
This is a bit of stretch, but if you ask NFL scouts what they look for in defensive tackles; aggression, strength, and the ability to both clog running lanes and cause disruption, will all rank highly, and Tameifuna potentially brings all of these attributes to the table. If Tameifuna ever did make it to the NFL, his biggest challenge could be persuading Ben Roethlisberger to give up his ‘Big Ben’ nickname, as Tameifuna has been going by the same pseudonym on the rugby pitch.
Courtney Lawes – Northampton Saints and England – Lock to Outside Linebacker
Whether setting the edge against the run, or getting after the quarterback, Lawes’ ferocious physicality and surprising acceleration seem to make him the perfect fit for the NFL. Capable of connecting with thunderous hits, Lawes is also very efficient with his tackling, and rarely fails to take down his man. Learning to drop back into coverage would be a learning curve, but if used solely as a pass rusher initially, Lawes’ transition would, in theory, be fairly smooth.
Israel Folau – NSW Waratahs and Australia – Fullback to Free Safety
Like blocking, dropping into coverage/secondary play is a fairly alien concept to most rugby players, but this is the bread and butter of any rugby fullback, and Folau is one of the best currently playing. He is superb at taking the ball in the air, has great range thanks to his 6”5 frame and scintillating turn of pace, and is a great runner, all of which would make him a highly skilled ‘ballhawk’ in the NFL. At 227 pounds, Folau also has the power, and tackling ability, to punish players coming across the middle.
Jonny Wilkinson – Toulon and England – Fly-half to Kicker
The venerable Wilkinson deserves a mention as he could extend his sporting career by some years if he were to take up kicking duties in the NFL when he retires from the game of rugby. A peerless goal-kicker, Wilkinson has one of the most impressive work ethics of any athlete in professional sports, and would be a welcome addition to any NFL locker room. The Englishman also offers the added bonus of being a superb tackler, and would be a real asset against dangerous return men. To give perspective, Wilkinson routinely puts in hits which make the now inafmous hit on Trindon Holliday by Indianpolis Colts’ punter Pat McAfee, look tame.