"A star is born?"
It's the question asked by a leading NFL reporter and the question on the lips of fans worldwide, as former rugby league star Jarryd Hayne lit up the field -- and social media -- in his debut for the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday.
Hayne was the National Rugby League's reigning Dally M medallist for best and fairest player when he made the shock announcement last October he was quitting to pursue a career in American football. Freely admitting his most recent encounter with the NFL was through "playing it on PlayStation," Hayne's move was met with a fair amount of shock, a huge amount of interest and a sizeable dollop of skepticism.
Many are now eating their words, however, after his debut for the 49ers against the Houston Texans in a pre-season game over the weekend.
With just his second ever touch of a ball in a live game, Hayne grabbed the ball from his quarterback, hit the accelerator and blasted through the defence on a 53-yard run. The play sparked a storm online, with many NFL personalities -- formerly cautious of giving any opinion either way on Hayne's chances of success in San Francisco -- gushing praise for the former Parramatta Eels star.
Eric Branch, 49ers reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, laid his cards on the table soon after Hayne's impressive burst, tweeting the above and later writing simply "The Aussie is awesome" on his SFGate blog.
Fellow 49ers reporter Cam Inman, of the Bay Area News Group, had previously ranked Hayne seventh out of the eight San Francisco players vying for the running back spot. After the game, however, he called Hayne a "new star".
San Jose News sports reporter Tim Kawakami predicted, "there'll be no doubt" Hayne would make the 49ers starting team if he "makes a couple more plays like he did tonight," and later wrote "This is the summer of Jarryd Hayne." Adding to the media attention, Hayne even made the back page of the newspaper.
Hayne became a Twitter trending topic in both Australia and the U.S. during the game, and Google searches for his name exploded just afterwards as both Aussies scrambled to find footage of his first game and Americans scrambled to learn more about him.
A Facebook page titled simply 'Hayne NFL Updates' swelled to 13,000 users. The NFL itself even gave Hayne a huge wrap to a global audience, putting his exploits in front of their Twitter account's 12.7 million followers.
The 49ers even got in on Hayne's old nickname from his NRL days.
Hayne's coach, Jim Tomsula, tried not to go overboard with his praise but seems to have changed his earlier tone after seeing the 'Hayne Plane' in action. In May, Tomsula downplayed Hayne's NFL progress in training sessions by saying "when you watch what we're doing here, he's still playing rugby... he's fielding balls and running around in shorts and a T-shirt."
After the game however, the 49ers coach was much more glowing in his assessment.
“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... It seems like everybody’s surprised. I’m not," he said.
Australian bookmakers hosting odds for Hayne to make the NFL have also slashed their prices in the wake of his first pre-season game.
Hayne in his NRL days, in full flight for the Parramatta Eels (Ashley Feder/Getty Images)
Aussie gridiron experts, however, are still cautious of heaping praise on Hayne at this early stage. Paul Manera, the offensive co-ordinator for the Australian national team said Hayne had a long road ahead of him.
"He did a good job. It's hard to determine, but I'm confident he will make the first cut [as the 49ers finalise their playing roster]," Manera told The Huffington Post Australia.
"The biggest thing is he needs to run lower. He runs too upright and that has problems in American football. He needs to learn to run low to protect the ball, to not to cop any bad shots to the rib, and not get knocked backwards when he gets hit.
"That's what the coaches are looking for."
Similarly, Martin Soluch of the Australia National Gridiron League said Hayne was far from assured of a place in the 49ers' first team.
"He managed to have a good run on one down, however the factors that need to be considered is that he did not actually break any tackles on that play," Soluch said.
"In terms of technique he runs high, so that will impact on his agility and could potentially be a contributing factor to injury... He still needs to adapt to the game. Overall we will need to see how he performs in the next few games."
Perhaps the most apt description of Hayne's performance, however, came again from Tim Kawakami, of the San Jose News.
"Hayne isn’t just a novelty act anymore," he wrote.
Certainly, people are now paying more attention than ever.