Australian behemoth Jordan Mailata proving a path to NFL success possible for rugby players

Why can’t a professional rugby player find success in the NFL? It’s a question that has perplexed sports fans for years. The two sports seem naturally compatible and possess shared origins. Plenty of high school rugby players have successfully made the transition in college and translated it to the NFL. And yet, of the string of pro rugby stars who have tried their hand at professional football, none have yet to find success at the NFL level.

That is until Jordan Mailata came along.

The mountainous Aussie is putting together a breakout 2020 season for the Philadelphia Eagles, providing a rare bright spot in a difficult season for the NFC East club. While players like Hayden Smith, Daniel Adongo, Jarryd Hayne and current Buffalo Bill Christian Wade have yet to break out at more translatable skill positions, Mailata has found a role by taking advantage of the one thing you simply can’t teach: size. Standing 6’8 and weighing 346 pounds, he’s the ideal offensive tackle and is looking like the long term future at the position for the Eagles.

It hasn’t always been smooth sailing for Mailata. Since being selected 233rd overall in the 2018  NFL Draft and becoming the second player ever drafted without American college or high school football experience, Mailata had yet to play an NFL game before this season and ended up on injured reserve both years. However, the freakish Australian was no stranger to overcoming medical setbacks. Before his insane rugby highlight tape went viral, Mailata almost lost the sport, and his life, when he fainted at a training session and was rushed in for emergency heart surgery. He bounced back from that scare with the best play of his life and now fully healthy in 2020, he’s done the same thing.

Jordan Mailata holds off Jacksonville Jaguars defensive end Lyndon Johnson, 92, in a preseason game Photo: Phelan M. Ebenhack AP

In what many fans and pundits considered to be the make or break season for his NFL experiment, Mailata has shown all the promise of his viral highlight reel while plugging gaps along a banged up Eagles offensive front. It started in Week One when he jumped in for injured Eagles rookie Jack Driscoll midway through the third quarter. By Week Four, he’d earned his first start at left tackle and hasn’t been off  the field since.

“I’m telling you, anytime I can get into the game, I’m licking my fingers, licking my lips, ready to go,” Mailata told reporters last week while discussing his early season success. “It’s such a great feeling to be out there. I understand why people play so long, and why they love the sport. Once I got the taste, I want more.”

While the rest of Eagles have routinely drawn the ire of the fanbase for their losing record, Mailata has slowly become a fan favourite. When starting left tackle Jason Peters, a 17-year NFL veteran with nine Pro Bowl appearances to his name, returned from injury last week, many fans were vocal in their belief that Mailata should retain the job, giving him further time to develop. The Eagles instead shifted him to right tackle, giving Peters back his job but keeping Mailata on the field.

“I think I was doing my job. I was doing the best I can,” Mailata said about the shift. “Was it perfect? Sometimes it was, sometimes it wasn’t. But, you know, as for keeping the job, again, I can only control what I can control and I can only put out for the universe what I give, so it’s not up to me.”

Jordan Mailata playing rugby for the South Sydney Rabbitohs Photo:

Mailata is less familiar with the right side than the left one but he’s refining his technique and continued to perform at a high level on Sunday despite the shift. It’s all likely temporary however. Usual starting right tackle Lane Johnson, a former All-Pro himself, could be back on the field as early as next week and that would send Mailata right back to the bench. The Australian’s job is set to change week to week from here on in, but he isn’t frustrated by the uncertainty.

“Nah, no frustration at all,” Mailata said. “I always said, it’s team first. If they go to right tackle, I’m like, ‘Cool. ’Sup, Matt Pryor? What’s going on, man? I’m back.’ And if I go back to left, I’m like ‘I’m back, Herbie.’ So that’s pretty much it. I’m comfortable (on) both sides, obviously more comfortable on the left, but any time I can get a rep in the ones, I’m cheering. I’m all for it any time I can get a rep with the ones.”

Its a good philosophy to have, but regardless of where he will be playing Mailata has secured an NFL future and already surpassed the accomplishments of other rugby stars who have tried their hand at the gridiron game. A testament to his development at the hands of the coaching staff, Mailata will be a key piece of the Eagles future and, at just 23, his best years are still in front of him. When Jason Peters finally retires, the Australian has made a compelling case to be his heir apparent protecting the blindside, a role previously unconscionable for a foreign born rugby player.

When you’re as big as he is, I guess it’s easy to break new ground.

J.C. Abbott is a student at the University of British Columbia and amateur football coach in Vancouver, Canada. A CFL writer for 3DownNation, his love of travel has been the root of his fascination with the global game.