In America’s ongoing fascination with all things Aussie, which involve too many nitwit myths about vegemite and Crocodile Dundee, here we have a certain Jarryd Hayne, once named the world’s best rugby player, hauling ass on a 53-yard burst. I know, what else would anyone expect from the 49ers in their post-Harbaugh, turf-challenged, mass-exodus, first-to-worst mode than a raw project from Down Under … as they plunge Under .500?
Just a few weeks ago, it appeared Hayne only would challenge Colin Kaepernick as the team’s most insensitive tweeting twit. This is the guy who drew the ire of the Anti-Defamation League when he tweeted, “Jesus wanted to help people but was killed by his own people,” then tweeted in response to an objector, “The Jews were the people who took him to the Romans n forced them to give the order because they couldn’t.” Several days passed before Hayne apologized, surely with the help of 49ers’ public-relations personnel for whom I truly feel sorry, given the relentless organizational madness the last 12 months.
“I have and will always accept people of all faiths,” he wrote. “I encourage my fans around the world to do the same.”
If his magnitude hadn’t been obvious to NFL fans before then, it was when Hayne expressed global regret. He had spent nine celebrated years with the Parramatta Eels of the Australian National Rugby League before announcing, in a decision that staggered scrummers everywhere, that he was joining the 49ers as an undrafted free agent. What remained to be answered: Was he a mere publicity stunt, a way for Niners general manager Trent Baalke to prove he’s an innovative, out-of-the-box thinker? Or, as an elite athlete in a sport similar to American football in its dependence on physicality and speed, might Hayne be a diamond in the bush?
Then came his dash in Houston during the preseason opener, a 6-2, 220-pound streak mashing through a hole on the left side — courtesy of fullback Bruce Miller — and faking a safety with a shake move until he was forced out at the Texans’ 13-yard line. When he followed with a 33-yard kick return and two punt returns averaging 12 yards, well, Hayne didn’t seem like an oddball experiment anymore. Suddenly, the mind began racing as quickly as he did, wondering if Baalke actually might have unearthed something special even on a running-back depth chart where the promising Carlos Hyde will be the primary ballcarrier, veteran Reggie Bush will be the versatile accompaniment and Kendall Hunter and Mike Davis will contribute.
With the regular-season opener three Mondays away, I’ve been imagining what the game announcers possibly could say positively about the 49ers. Who is Jim Tomsula? Where is Jim Harbaugh? What happened to Aldon Smith? Where did Patrick Willis, Justin Smith, Chris Borland and Anthony Davis go? Anyone seen Frank Gore or Mike Iupati? Wouldn’t any agronomist worth his manure know that two Taylor Swift concerts in mid-August, followed by Luke Bryan’s “Kick Up the Dust” tour date on Aug. 29, could cause more of the same liability-fraught divots that have been problematic since Levi’s Stadium opened?
Well, here’s your positive slant: The international rugby star who made everyone in Santa Clara feel better, at least for now.
No worries, mate.
“I felt a huge weight lifted,” Hayne said. “I put a lot of pressure on myself. I wanted to go out there and fit in. I didn’t want to go out there and look like a rugby player. I wanted to look like an American NFL player, and I felt I did that.
“I didn’t get to the end zone, which is obviously disappointing because it’s what I was aiming for. But for me to just get out there and have a solid series, a solid run, that was the biggest thing for me.”
If Hayne is aiming for the end zone every play, hallelujah. There are too many new faces and moving parts to think Kaepernick and the first-team offense, as we saw briefly in Houston, will avoid struggles this season. Any spark is welcome. What if Hayne happens to be a fireball? Might he become one of those quirks who morphs into an NFL fad that, in a copycat league, immediately prompts teams to fly scouts to Australia? To hear his teammates, Hayne already is a revelation.
“Amazing,” Kaepernick said. “He played really well. He played fast, had a great run, couple of good punt returns. Everyone is impressed with what he’s done.”
“I saw him hit the hole and just go,” said backup quarterback Blaine Gabbert, whose handoff to Hayne started the big play. “The O-line did a tremendous job getting all the reaches. Bruce [Miller] threw somebody out of the park, opened up a giant hole for Jarryd, who made the safety miss in open space. He almost broke it.”
No one was more effusive than Tomsula, who is against the 8-ball in a thankless coaching succession and needs help from sources near and far. “Quite honestly, I expected him to be very comfortable in space,” he said. “I’ve watched a lot of film of him playing rugby. I’ve watched the physicality of his play in rugby. He never missed a beat when he put on shoulder pads. That was the first hurdle I was concerned about. He can play in space. He’s a premier athlete in the world in space.
“I’m not as shocked that Jarryd was able to field punts and run or field kicks and run, or that Jarryd was able to see creases and take them and then get into the open field and a void. I’ve seen him do all those things.”
Yet Tomsula also should be commended for not crossing into giddyville. While 49ers fans and fantasy players are emotionally overcome by the possibilities, the new coach won’t even commit to a spot for Hayne on the final 53-man unit.
“He absolutely has to battle to make the roster,” Tomsula said. “And I hope I’m presenting a very tempered approach to what happened with Jarryd. There were things that went on and we still have a long way to go. The thing that excites me is the kind of person he is. You get into a situation where you’re rooting for guys, you’re pulling for guys. And he’s one of those guys.”
Isn’t he tempted to turn loose the weapon known for two nicknames — Hayne Train and Hayne Plane — in Australia? “I just like to temper everything. We don’t need to put undo expectations. It’s unnecessary for me to put that on his plate right now,” Tomsula said. “I just want him to stay focused on getting better. The guy’s a world-class athlete.”
Experiments tend to be fleeting in the NFL, if they work at all. What happened to the Wildcat offense, recently all the rage? Remember when Kaepernick and Robert Griffin III were GQ cover subjects instead of regressing stragglers figured out by defensive strategists? Remember when Tim Tebow was going to take over? Hell, go back to Bill Walsh, who assumed a hurdler named Renaldo Nehemiah would be an All-Pro receiver until he thought better in 1985, when he drafted Jerry Rice.
Jarryd Hayne could be a one-play wonder, too.
Or he could be the Hayne Train, the real thing.