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The Zammit case and Welsh rugby

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The Zammit case and Welsh rugby

From the national rugby team to the NFL, Louis Rees-Zammit’s journey is a symbol of the Welsh oval ball.

On February 2, 2024, the curtain rose on the 25th edition of the most important rugby tournament in Europe, the Six Nations. Italy debuted at the Olimpico in Rome, losing 24-27 against England. The coach of the Azzurri, the Argentinian Gonzalo Quesada, has already released the list of players called up for the match against the English, as have the others head coach who will compete against each other between February and March. Even after more than a week, and probably until the end of the Tournament, the one destined to create the greatest sensation was the “not chosen” by Wales coach Warren Gatland, who was unable to call up one of his stars, Louis Rees-Zammit. The class of 2001, about half an hour before the press conference in which Gatland announced his selection for the debut match against Scotland, announced his choice to hang up his rugby boots at the age of 22 to try the experience overseas in the NFL.

For those who have never heard of him or were vaguely aware of him during the filming of Full Contact, it is worth underlining how Louis Rees-Zammit is – or rather, “was” – considered one of the rising stars of the oval ball. After having approached the ball of the unpredictable bounce at an early age, he signed his first professional contract with Gloucester, the English Premiership club. In the same year as his arrival in the English championship, he was called up for the 6 Nations for the first time, winning the following edition with Wales. 9 is enough for him caps (5 total tries) with the Gloucester shirt to earn Gatland’s call for the prestigious selection of British and Irish Lions.

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Zammit was not one anyone: as well as boasting 3 goals in 4 caps for the red and whites, he became the third fastest player in the history of rugby (since data on the subject has been collected) reaching 10.73 m/s (38.7 km/h!). His career, at the moment, counts more than one try every two matches with Wales (42 in 77 appearances, 65 as a starter), making him, with his 88 kg distributed in 191 cm of pure explosiveness, a player on whom to rely despite the young age.

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Zammit therefore represented one of those three quarters wing in front of which, once you have received the ball, the only thing to stop it is to run backwards hoping not to be burned at speed. Or pray.

The announcement of Rees-Zammit’s decision explains, through the images and words of his social profiles, how his is not necessarily a “goodbye” to rugby but a “goodbye”. This would be dictated by the desire to increase his technical knowledge and increase his athletic qualities.

With a next post, instead, communicates its official presence in the International Player Pathway Program. This is the NFL’s global project that gives non-US athletes the opportunity to showcase themselves and follow a specific program to evaluate their skills. The best players, as one might imagine, will be contacted by the clubs, and Zammit has not hesitated in starting training. Furthermoretold how he had a passion for American football since he was a child and his aim was to follow in his father’s sporting footsteps.

Rugby and American football, brothers or only children?

Zammit wasn’t the first (and probably won’t be the last) to try to make the transition from rugby to American football. It should be noted, however, that these players have often retraced their steps by resuming the activity previously left pending: the cases of Alex Gray and Christian Wade have become jurisprudence. The two, coming from rugby, after realizing that American football was not for them, were re-engaged respectively by Bath Rugby and Racing 92. A curious case is that of Hayden Smith, went from basketball to rugby, from rugby to the NFL and finally back from the NFL to rugby wearing the uniform of the Saracens.

The reason players transitioning from rugby to American football struggle to settle in is that the two sports are only similar on the surface. In reality, although they are two physical disciplines that use the oval ball, they are almost opposite. Obviously the game object is similar: the rugby one is larger, the football one is designed to be more aerodynamic, but the differences essentially stop there.

The difference between scoring a try and a touchdown is that in the first case the player must accompany the ball into the area defended by the opponents and crush it on the pitch, while in the second it can also be thrown directly from the Wide Receiver. The two factors that most distinguish one sport from another are certainly the passing and the ways in which physical contact occurs: in rugby you can only pass the ball backwards and only the player in possession of the ball can be tackled, while in American football you can also pass forward and tackle even players without the ball. They seem like small things but for players who have played for years according to certain rules, adapting to such changes in the short term is anything but trivial.

Why go to the NFL?

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Linking back to Zammit, it can be said that this was yet another confirmation regarding the disastrous situation of Welsh rugby. The specific case also has economic motives: the highest paid player in the world in rugby is the Scot Finn Russell (€1,500,000 per season), while in American football Lamar Jackson earns $82 million per year.

The economic crisis of Welsh rugby arises from a cultural problem. The paper interviewed David Cornwall: At the moment, compared to when he started playing (date of birth: 1947), there is much more competition from other sports towards rugby. This problem is amplified by the fact that Wales has 3 million inhabitants. Given the lack of substantial generational turnover, in some youth matches, in order to get the kids onto the field, 13vs13 are organized instead of the canonical 15vs15. In addition to this, the economic crisis has aggravated an already difficult situation. As reported by The post e The paperin Wales there are four main franchises: Cardiff, Scarlets, Dragons e Ospreys. If before the pandemic it can be said that they were already in dire economic straits, the latter has made the situation even worse.

Welsh Rugby has asked the government for a loan of €20 million to be split between the four teams to be repaid within 20 years at 10% interest. This loan, while necessary for the franchises to enter the United Rugby Championship, had disastrous consequences for their rosters. In fact, salary cuts were made caused by the introduction of a salary cap infinitely lower than the contracts in force at the time.

This has left the Welsh players in a state of desolation due to a lack of future perspective, the economic difficulty in supporting their families and the absence of guarantees in the event of injury.
The English press reported how some of them fell into a depressive state.

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The last factor to take into consideration is the question of the famous “60 caps”: since 2017, Welsh Rugby had introduced the rule according to which, in order to be able to play abroad and at the same time for the national team, a player had to first reach 60 caps for the latter. If one of them had decided not to play for a Welsh team before joining them, he would no longer be eligible for the national team.

In that period, many Welsh players had to give up the national team in order to receive an acceptable salary. In February 2023 the issue was partially resolved: Welsh Rugby decided to grant the reduction of the threshold from 60 to 25, still a high quota but certainly a step forward. The last example that certifies the “no moment” of rugby in Wales can be found in the last edition of the 6 Nations played in 2023. The national team has in fact threatened a strike ahead of the match against England (the most heartfelt by Red Dragons fans and players). The reason is to be found in the fact that the players belonging to the 4 franchises had not been reassured either regarding the certainty of obtaining a contract in the current season or at what prices. The only certainty, in fact, is that even if they had been put under contract, their salary would have dropped dramatically compared to the previous ones.

If there are no new players, franchises don’t grow; the latter are (as has already happened) forced to ask for cheap loans; salaries are cut to meet the interest; the players become dissatisfied; young people are not attracted to this sport as it does not promise certainties. Welsh rugby, in a sentence, is going through a vicious circle. Unfortunately for fans of this sport, after the recent case of Louis Rees-Zammit, not only could the Welsh decide to escape from their homeland in search of fortune in higher-paying leagues (France and England) by giving up the national team, but even to change sports by trying the NFL. It’s hard to find the light at the end of the tunnel.

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