Levi Stadium, Santa Clara. The first Monday Night Football game at the most advanced stadium in the United States. The 49ers, in black, against the Minnesota Vikings. There were plenty of storylines here: would the Vikings defence live up to their solid rep? Would Adrian Peterson be a force again? Would Colin Kaepernick? Was Teddy Bridgewater all that? The answers: not really, not tonight, definitely maybe, and probably not.
Of course, none of those questions and fewer of those answers really mattered to Australians and New Zealanders. Tuesday Afternoon Football was all about one thing and one thing only: what would Jarryd Hayne do in his first game.
Let us recap the Hayne story to date: League star Hayne decides he wants to do something else, fans and media tell him he’s dreaming; Hayne ignores them and embarks upon a quest to become an NFL player; fans and media tell him he’s still dreaming; Hayne makes the early cut at the 49ers; fans and media start a hashtag; Hayne makes it onto the 49ers roster; fans and media praise the man for living his dreams; Hayne makes it all the way to the starting line in an NFL game; fans and media eagerly await a spectacular fail.
They didn’t have to wait long, and the #HaynePlane didn’t disappoint. After both the 49ers and Vikings fluffed their lines on opening field goal attempts, and with 3.24 remaining in the first quarter, Hayne took the field to receive the punt… and completely misjudged it for a fumble. Cue the crash and burn jokes.
Context required here: Just before Hayne took the field for his first play in the NFL, the 49ers star running back Reggie Bush had hobbled to the sideline with a game-ending calf injury. What must Hayne have been thinking at that particular moment? Possibly, “holy shit, my job just got a bit tougher”. Don’t tell me the idea of covering for a guy in his tenth NFL season in your first appearance wouldn’t have you sweating from every pore just before you were told to go catch a ball.
Trent Dilfer screamed from the commentary box. “That’s an unforgivable mistake!” The NFL is an unforgiving sport. Hayne’s mistake was quickly forgotten in the match as both special teams put on a comedy act of rookie errors. Hayne’s second punt return didn’t happen – the ball was kicked out. His third punt return was for ten yards, but a penalty put paid to that.
Soon enough he lined up for his first run with the football, and made seven yards on a reception. Cue the marketing machine. The coverage cut to shots of Hayne in Rugby league beast mode. Chris Berman dripped condescension in the commentary box: “You remember the Parramatta Eels, don’t you?” Of course, no American did. Most Americans couldn’t find Australia on a map of Australia.
Even better, Hayne played in the Rugby… League, as opposed to playing rugby league. A confusing distinction that will entertain Australasian fans for as long as this whacky Jarryd Hayne ride runs for.
There was a touch here, and a touch there for Hayne. The game was undoubtedly the worst of the opening round. The star of the show was Carlos Hyde who rushed for 168 yards on 26 carries. Hayne’s 13 rushing yards and one 7-yard reception won’t rate a mention in the wash up.
But it is worth a mention here. Because he played in a game of NFL, the game that eats America alive. And his team won easily, and he didn’t look out of place. And because it would be wrong to focus on his first touch and say ‘I told you so’ because it was a mistake that really didn’t matter in the context of the game, and it was a mistake that needed to be placed in a context of its own. Namely, just moments before it, Hayne would have realised he was getting one hell of an upgrade from special teams.
And the game is worth a mention here because for the first time two men with links to this part of the world faced each other on the gridiron on Monday Night Football.
You might remember the other one: His name is Rhett Ellison and he plays for the Vikings. His father blazed a trail for New Zealanders in the NFL, and his great great uncle wrote the book on rugby union and clad the All Blacks in black.
That was the odd reality of the night the 49ers played the Vikings in Santa Clara. And good on Jarryd Hayne for making that his reality.