Wales rugby union star Louis Rees-Zammit made the shock decision to leave the sport on Tuesday as he targets the “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity of a career in American football.
Rees-Zammit’s bombshell move came on the day Wales head coach Warren Gatland unveiled his squad for the forthcoming Six Nations tournament.
The 22-year-old had emerged as one of rugby’s brightest young talents, excelling for Gloucester, Wales and the British and Irish Lions.
But Rees-Zammit has opted to turn his back on rugby in favour of a potentially lucrative career in America’s National Football League.
He will leave for Florida this week to begin the ‘International Pathway Program’ (IPP) that allows athletes based outside the United States to forge a career in the NFL.
Rees-Zammit, who has been capped 32 times for Wales, said the opportunity to chase his NFL dream was too good to turn down.
“I have had the incredible honour of playing rugby for my country which, as a proud Welshman, I’ve never taken for granted,” he said.
“Opting to step away from international rugby on the eve of the Six Nations has been a painstaking decision, but I am extremely excited to take up a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to pursue a new challenge.
“I believe that this is the right time for me to realise another professional goal of playing American football in the US. Those opportunities don’t come around very often.”
Rees-Zammit claimed he was not necessarily retiring from rugby, but he will miss the Six Nations, which starts in February, and has no plans to return to club rugby in the short-term.
“Although this decision may come as a surprise, I would like to reiterate that this does not necessarily mean I am retiring from rugby,” he said.
“At this age and stage of my life I am excited to explore a unique challenge that has the potential to diversify my skillset.” The current NFL season has reached the play-offs, meaning Rees-Zammit would aim to earn a roster spot on a team in time for the 2024 season, which starts in September.
“Louis is an exceptional athlete, with a dream to play in the NFL, and we look forward to supporting him on his journey in the program,” the NFL IPP said in a statement.
Former England wing Christian Wade progressed from the international pathway to join the Buffalo Bills five years ago, but did not play in a regular season game.
“It’s a little bit of a shock,” Gatland said. “Things have happened pretty quickly in the last 24 hours.
“He rang me to let me know and give me that information, say thanks very much for his time at the World Cup and how he enjoyed it.
“He feels that if he doesn’t take that opportunity now, it might not happen again in the future.
“I wished him all the best. I’ve always been a great believer in players taking those opportunities that are presented for them. There is never a dull moment in Welsh rugby.” Rees-Zammit scored five tries at last year’s World Cup and became the youngest player to be selected for the British and Irish Lions since 1959 when he was named in the squad for the 2021 tour to South Africa aged 20 years and 93 days.
He had appeared in the last three Six Nations for Wales, scoring four tries in their victorious 2021 campaign.
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