The rapid Rees-Zammit will hope to do what those before him could not

Louis Rees-Zammit sent shockwaves through the sport on Tuesday when he announced he had decided to quit rugby union with immediate effect in order to pursue a career in the NFL.

The 22-year-old Welshman is one of the brightest young talents in the game but said in a surprise announcement the chance to try something new and expand his skill set was one that was too enticing to ignore.

And while he insisted it didn’t mean he was retiring from rugby, he does hope to impress enough to land a contract for 2024 through the NFL’s international player pathway (IPP).

Rugby’s loss is American football’s gain, with Wales and Gloucester now without their rapid winger as he heads to Florida to start a 10-week programme ahead of the 2024 NFL season, which begins in early September.

It’s a move that few saw coming but not one which represents a first. Former Newcastle Falcons player Alex Gray and ex-England winger Christian Wade both went through the IPP before signing for NFL teams.

Christian Scotland-Williamson also attempted to make the switch in 2017 but none of them made a significant impact. So can Rees-Zammit do what the trailblazers that came before him didn’t and forge a successful career in American football?

Read more: Wales Six Nations squad: Jenkins captains side as LRZ heads for NFL

‘A unique challenge’

The 22-year-old described his impending change of discipline as “a unique challenge that has the potential to diversify my skill set,” a skill set which centres around a devastating turn of pace.

Rees-Zammit burst onto the scene in 2020 and has been a key figure for Wales and Gloucester, becoming the youngest-ever player to feature in the Gallagher Premiership for the Cherry and Whites.

His ability on the wing also earned him a spot in the British & Irish Lions squad for the 2021 tour of South Africa, but will that translate in America?

Wade joined the Buffalo Bills in 2019 under the IPP but never made a regular-season appearance before he was cut from the roster in 2022.

Gray, primarily a No. 8, signed for the Atlanta Falcons in 2017 as a practice squad player but returned to rugby union with Bath in 2020 having failed to make a single appearance.

Lock Scotland-Williamson’s time in the NFL was equally ill-fated. He was signed by the Pittsburgh Steelers to their practice squad before also returning to the Gallagher Premiership with Harlequins.

Given his attributes, Rees-Zammit will likely be targeting a career as a wide receiver, a player required to run lines from deep and gather the ball over his shoulder often under extreme pressure.

There’s no doubt the speedster has the pace to succeed in this role but there is more to American football than simply being fast.

The technical challenge for the Rees-Zammit NFL project

One of Rees-Zammit’s weaknesses is in defence. He isn’t the most physical of specimens and that could pose a significant problem.

He’ll also face stiff opposition for a spot on a team’s roster. Places will be hotly contested between players who have been training, honing their skills, learning all the game’s nuances for years.

Coming in cold, it is undoubtedly a unique challenge Rees-Zammit has thrown himself into. The two sports feature throwing and catching but there are enough differences to tip the scale of probability against him. The US sporting culture is one that revolves around playbooks – kids master playbooks in football from an early age. As prescribed as a lot of elite rugby is now, it’s a flowing game. The scheming in the NFL is in another stratosphere.

If he was ever going to try he’s picked the right time as he will still have a line of suitors should he decide to U-turn back to rugby but there is a reason so few sportspeople have been able to successfully change discipline.

Rees-Zammit might very well create a few ripples on his journey from rugby union to prospective NFL star, and it will undoubtedly be interesting to follow his progress, but it is hard to envision a scenario in which this doesn’t end with him back in a Wales shirt.

Download the digital edition of Rugby World straight to your tablet or subscribe to the print edition to get the magazine delivered to your door.

Follow Rugby World on FacebookInstagram and Twitter/X.