Darren Coughlan is the owner of CrossFit Newcastle and has coached multiple athletes to The CrossFit Games. In addition, he’s a former professional rugby player and has two decades of experience in sport-specific strength & conditioning.
This article is Coughlan’s analysis of how strength & conditioning played into the career path of Jarryd Hayne, an Australian athlete who excelled in Rugby League and Rugby 7s before pursuing an NFL career with the San Francisco 49ers. Hayne played eight games with the 49ers in 2015 before retiring from the NFL in May of this year.
The Hayne plane has landed again, this time back in Rugby League. Jarryd Hayne is a very talented rugby league player, but he was always going to be pushing against gravity in his attempt at making a career in the NFL; he had just as difficult a task when he switched to Rugby 7s for Fiji trying to make their Olympic Squad. Now he’s found himself back in Rugby League with the Gold Coast Titans.
So why did his apparent failure happen? It’s certainly not his lack of talent for Rugby League, but his “fitness” or lack of fitness for each sport. Even though all the sports he played have a ball of similar dimensions, they are vastly different games and therefore have different physical demands.
Rugby League is played within 80mins, usually 70mins of that is actual ball in play. You play both offense and defense. It’s a very physically demanding game requiring a lot of cardiovascular endurance. For Haynes’ particular position of Fullback, he needed to cover a lot of ground in defense and be able to be explosive in attack with the ball in hand.
Rugby 7s is the epitome of cardiovascular endurance and the outright “wheels” or speed. If your “getaway sticks” are slow, you are of little use in 7s. Just like Rugby League where you play defense and offense, it’s also played on a full size field, 100m in length with only 7 players per team on the field at once. That’s a lot of running. The match is played in 7min halves, and doesn’t sound like a lot, but give it a crack, and you’ll soon figure out how “fit” you are.
When it comes to American football, I’ll emphasize that I’ve never played in the NFL ,but I’m a longtime fan; I’ve always considered American Football players to be the top of the tree in terms of genetics and ability. And I’m pretty handy at it on the Playstation [this is not a paid endorsement, but I would accept a new unit as a gift].
In terms of the three sports — Rugby League, Rugby 7s, and American football — the NFL is far from the other two rugby codes on the physical time demands. The average NFL play is about 4 seconds with 11mins of play spread over 3 hours. Obviously being focused and present over 3 hours is demanding, but not to the extent of Rugby League, for instance. Having had a few conversations with NFL legend John Welbourn of Power Athlete fame, those 4 seconds are brutal.
Now, back to Jarryd Hayne, the pro rugby player turned NFL prospect. As a third choice running back, maybe getting three plays per match, I’d say he could do without the cardio work, mostly.
Hayne failed in NFL because these some seriously genetically gifted athletes that have played American football since high school, know the intricacies of the sport, and have performed rep after rep after rep just for the chance of making a career in the NFL. Hayne was up against these power athletes with specific development for the sport, and their ability to step (cut the the USA readers) and move through gaps in the defense that usually don’t last longer than half a second is seriously impressive.
Where Hayne did well in Rugby League was being able to read the play as it develops, back 10 or even 30m behind the defensive line. He had zero chance of doing that in the NFL, as there’s basically no time to consciously read the play; you have to act on instinct, instinct that’s been developed over years.
His ability to read League, the play, at a distance is null and void in his Running Back “career.” Where he did do okay, and showed some potential in my view, was at returning punts. We all saw him fail a couple of attempts, which is likely a result of pressure and experience, not a lack of talent. At that’s what was one of his skill sets in Rugby League. I personally thought he should have had a crack at Safety, or Corner Back, but maybe his ego didn’t allow him to go on the defensive unit. The extra time and his ability to tackle would have served him well.
Now back in League, there’s little doubt Hayne will be lacking in “match fitness,” but he’ll be able to make up for it in time, time given to him by the greater distance from the defensive line. His instincts will serve him well, so if he can’t get through the gaps, or make the last ditch tackle in his first few games, he’ll be able to direct traffic to make up for it. And when he does that well they, the ignorant (that’s not an insult, it’s English) will forget the context of the situation and lament the 49-ers decision to let him walk away on his NFL dream.
So, all that said, how did Jarryd Hayne do in his Rugby comeback? I think he played a good game for his first match back. He made some good defensive reads, threw a couple of bad passes, and didn’t look too out of breath, although he was clearly hurting a various stages.
So from a strength and conditioning point of view, the three sports demand mostly different things. So how is he able to compete in three sports, to break the hearts of some strength & conditioning experts? It’s due to his talent, simple.
Sure, the weight room plays a part in the success on the field, but it can’t replace talent.
There’s a saying/quote or motivating line you’ll see occasionally: “Hard work beats talent when talent wont work hard.” I do think this rings true. But at the top of the tree — NFL, NRL, AFL — the most talented do work hard, and Hayne is an example of that.
The gym is to augment the talent you have, what you come to the table with. Increasing your bench or squat is not going to give you the “eyes” to read the game. Yes, training will help you last longer, run faster, hit harder. But champions always seem to have “more time,” move “smoother,” and look. Why is that? It’s because they can read the game. It’s how the older guys beat the rookies and how the Legends in any sport stay at the top for most if not all their careers.
I’d love to see fitness sports incorporate more skills and challenges that we see in ball sports. I’ve got a few ideas how that would look, and while no one has done it yet, some are trying.
Get in the weight room and work your ass off, but be smart with your pursuits and effort.
Editors note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein are the authors and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.
Featured image: @jarrydhayne38 on Instagram