Australia native Hayden Smith spent only a short time on the active roster of the New York Jets and almost two seasons on the practice squad, but ask him about his best moments around Gang Green and he mentions two things: “The fans and Rex Ryan.”
Smith is back in the New York area this week playing a different kind of contact sport—rugby—and will help make some history on Saturday when his club, Saracens FC, the defending Aviva Premiership champion currently again in first place, takes on London Irish at Red Bull Arena in what will be the first-ever regular season professional match played in the United States. Smith, one of three Americans on the Saracens roster, started in rugby and made the transition to the NFL for the 2012 and 2013 seasons with the Jets before going back to his original sport, and said he hasn’t looked back.
“I loved my time in New York, my teammates were great, the fans are so passionate and the organization treated me really well and gave me a chance,” he said following a practice in Montclair, N.J., on Wednesday. “However the environment around rugby is different than it was in the NFL, and it’s great to see the game taking hold even more here now.”
Officials anticipate a crowd of about 12,000 on Saturday, which may sound small, but is twice what the two clubs drew the last time they met in the UK. This is a first step in a three year commercial venture akin to what the NFL is doing in Europe; bringing elite teams into a location that is learning and engaging in the game like never before and getting them used to elite rugby, many for the first time. It will be a unique follow to last weekend, when the HSBC Sevens was staged in Las Vegas (sevens is a faster and smaller version of traditional rugby 15’s, and will be the version of the sport played in the Rio Olympics this summer) and drew a record crowd of over 80,000 for the three day event at Sam Boyd Stadium.
That event, as well as this one and other matches where the world’s best have come to the United States, will help to continue to bolster the sport, according to Smith.
“When I was here we lived in Hoboken and it was all about football, now when I meet up with my former teammates people have a better knowledge of rugby, and you can see it growing here,” the former tight end added. “With the time and effort being out into growing the game at the grassroots level, I think it has a great chance to succeed here.”
As far as his return trip to New Jersey goes, Smith said he is looking forward to playing just a few miles from where he spent his best time in the NFL. “You never forget the New York fans, and I’m hoping maybe a few show up in green and white to check it out,” think they will like what they see,” he added.
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