The beginning of a new year marks an exciting occasion for Northern Hemisphere rugby. The Six Nations are just a month away, and the hotly anticipated squads are released. Not many could have foreseen the events that unfolded on the eve of Wales’ squad being announced.
Star Welsh winger Louis Rees-Zammit decided to quit rugby with immediate effect, and will be entering the NFL International Player Pathway programme in a dramatic career turn. Instilled into him from a young age by his father’s gridiron days, he is now pursuing his lifelong dream of playing in the National Football League.
It is not plain sailing from here, as the NFL is quite literally a different ball game. There is a great hope however, with the future of Rees-Zammit in particular, that this pathway will be a key part of the globalisation of the NFL.
What is the NFL International Player Pathway programme?
The International Player Pathway (IPP) programme was set up in 2017 by the NFL with the aim to provide ‘elite international athletes with the opportunity to compete at the NFL level, improve their skills and ultimately work to earn a spot on an NFL roster.’
Elite athletes are invited to partake in the NFL International Combine, where they can showcase their abilities that correlate with the necessary skills of elite American football. Those selected undergo a 10-week process at the IMG Academy in Florida with NFL scouts to further evaluate and determine what skills they can offer to a franchise.
The NFL determines at random which division players from the pathway can go to – the past two classes have been allocated to the NFC North and AFC West respectively. Teams in those divisions are allocated an extra off-season roster spot if they select an IPP player.
Once the time comes to declare a 53-man season roster, the IPP player that makes it can either be placed on the roster or waived. To ensure they are given a fair shot, if an IPP player is waived and then clears subsequent waivers, they can be signed back on to the practice squad as an extra exempted player. They cannot be elevated to the active roster that season, however.
How have previous classes fared?
When you look at the successes of the programme, there is one clear standout – Jordan Mailata. The starting left offensive tackle for the Philadelphia Eagles entered the IPP in 2018, turning down a professional rugby league contract in his native Australia to do so.
Mailata was scouted at the IMG Academy by Eagles offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland, impressing to the point where the Eagles drafted him with the 233rd pick. Mailata had found out halfway through the process that he was also draft eligible.
This made Mailata the second ever draft pick to have no American high school or college experience. He formed part of a phenomenal Eagles offensive line last year that narrowly lost in the Super Bowl.
A total of 37 players have been either allocated, drafted or signed as a free agent on to an NFL roster since the IPP’s inception in 2017. Out of those, five players have been signed to an active roster: Mailata, Efe Obada (UK – Washington Commanders), Jakob Johnson (Germany – Las Vegas Raiders), Sammis Reyes (Chile – Washington Commanders) and David Bada (Germany – Washington Commanders)
There are some notable British rugby union players who did make it on to practice squads. However, they were not fortunate enough to be added to the active rosters and were eventually cut.
Two of those were former England international Christian Wade, who was a running-back for the Buffalo Bills, and ex-Worcester Warrior Christian Scotland-Williamson, who featured as a tight end for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
In his first football game ever. On his first NFL touch.
— NFL (@NFL) August 9, 2019
Both showed great promise but were not able to break through to that final elusive stage. In an interview with Decypher, Scotland-Williamson outlined just how tough the step up was:
“Nothing can replicate having to learn a playbook and the pressure in American football.”
Mailata reinforced this in an interview on Eagles One on One:
“Mentally, it [the playbook] was challenging. I didn’t know where to begin and when I looked at it, it was like a different language.”
It is a complex sport that has been ingrained in most elite players from a young age. To break the mould as an outsider starting late, it takes a real special talent, no matter how prolific they were in their original sport.
The 2024 IPP Class
Perhaps this is the class that possesses that very special athlete. Rees-Zammit is undoubtedly the most talented rugby player to enter the pathway. At just 22 years of age, the British and Irish Lion already has a remarkable 31 Welsh caps to his name.
Ex-South African rugby legend Naas Botha, who trialled with the Dallas Cowboys, told Sportsboom that this is an opportunity that he can really make the most of:
“He’s got the feet work, he’s got the skill, he’s got the running skills, he’s got lovely hands. He’s got all the attributes to succeed.
“But this is where we’re making a big mistake trying to compare rugby to American football.”
Trying to compare the two sports is a mistake that many still make. Both are tough physical sports, but the nuances of American football are far more difficult to comprehend. Just because Rees Lightning has the physical attributes that make him a magnificent winger does not mean he can simply slot to a wide receiver.
There is very good reason to believe he may be the one to go all the way, but it is a test that only time will tell. Of course, Rees-Zammit is not the only member of this class, of which there are some seriously skilled individuals.
There are fellow ex-rugby players such as Harry Mallinder, Darragh Leader and George Smith for example, who have hailed from professional rugby clubs across England and Ireland. The range expands through to rugby league, Gaelic football, basketball, gymnastics and even Australian rules football. It is a pathway full of promise.