He grew up playing basketball in Australia and discovered rugby in the USA. And now Hayden Smith has returned from a stint in the NFL to his spiritual home at Saracens.
Smith is clearly a man who likes a challenge and settles into each one with ease.
A childhood of basketball earned him a scholarship to Denver’s Metro State University where he played that sport before turning to Rugby Union after graduating.
That change of direction took him into the US national team and to Saracens before he went back to America for a spell with New York Jets.
And after 18 months across the Atlantic a return to North London, where he spent four years and helped Saracens lift the Aviva Premiership title in 2011, is welcome familiarity for the 28-year-old.
“I’m so happy to be back here and very focused on trying to help Saracens in any way that I can,” said Smith.
“You always want to push yourself and see what is out there. Having done that, I’m firmly looking forward now and trying to achieve something here this year.”
Smith’s college days in Denver had a major influence on the ensuing years, playing Rugby Union for the first time at a local club and being exposed to the world of American Football.
His brief NFL career was spent as a tight-end, a position dominated by former college basketball players due to its focus on size and ball skills.
And while the position does not draw too many similarities with his second row berth in rugby, the NFL’s off-the-pitch approach has served as a fascinating eye-opener for Smith.
He said. “The nature of the NFL is such that there is a huge emphasis on the wins and losses. It’s certainly the most intense environment that I’ve been involved in.
“The game itself is incredibly complicated and it’s a very dynamic and pressured environment.
“I was there for a year and a half and it was just a fantastic experience – really something I’ll always treasure.
“It was at the end of this pre-season – they made a roster move to bring in a running back and I was the guy on the list who got cut. No hard feelings whatsoever – it’s the nature of the game.”
Smith’s career trajectory looks like that of someone unable to settle in any one place, but the Australian-born lock admitted his second coming at Saracens, who he left in the summer of 2012, already has him feeling comfortable.
And he is not expecting to up sticks and have a crack at yet another sport, even after admiring the heroics of code-switching Kiwi Sonny Bill Williams in this year’s Rugby League World Cup.
“There are a few new faces but the essence of this place has remained the same and that is what makes it a really special place,” he said. “It just puts a smile on my face to be back around the guys and I am really enjoying my time.
“I’ve never played a game of Rugby League in my life. I guess it’s counter-intuitive, seeing as I was born in Penrith, a hotbed of League.
“But I was playing basketball as my main sport growing up and I stuck with that and as things have turned out I’ve been really fortunate so I haven’t really looked back on it. I don’t think I’ll ever give League a go.
“I’m back here and focused on achieving everything possible I can with Saracens.”
However, there is one thing Smith may have considered trying his hand at – if he was a few years younger and a few kilograms leaner.
He said: “Aussie Rules. I played one game messing around when I was very young, like 11 or 12, but there was none of it really around.
“I’d probably have to lose about 30 kilos, but that would have been fun.”
PADDY VON BEHR
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