Valentine Holmes has played his first game in America’s National Football League (NFL), and the former rugby league star has shown some positive signs in his pre-season debut for the New York Jets.
But even as Holmes took his first strides in search of a permanent place in the sport, teams in the NRL are waiting for an opportunity to lure him back to Australia.
As befitting his lowly place on the Jets’ depth chart — the team’s order from top to bottom at every position on the team — it took Holmes until early in the final quarter to get a run against the New York Giants.
With the Jets’ fourth quarterback of the night, Luke Falk, directing traffic, Holmes was handed the ball on successive plays as the Australian found out how difficult it can be to gain ground in the NFL.
Used to making big linebreaks in the NRL, Holmes managed a two-yard run to the right side of the line on his first play.
His next carry ended quickly, as the Giants’ defence stopped him behind the line for a one-yard loss.
On the Jets’ next series, however, Holmes got to show another side to his game.
Falk sent a short pass to his right which Holmes caught and made it for 14 yards and a valuable first down before receiving a big hit from the Giants’ defence.
The next play he caught another pass and made another first down with an 11-yard gain.
Later in the drive Holmes ran up the middle and gained five yards — however some commentators were already warning that the former Sharks star was running too upright rather than tilting his body to avoid the hits.
He had one last catch for five yards before being pushed out of bounds.
This gave him respective game figures of three runs for six yards, and three catches for 30 yards.
There are three more pre-season games for NFL teams, before they have to finalise their 53-man roster early on September 1 (AEST).
Valentine Holmes and his competition
Y = Yards gained Rec = reception TD = touchdown
Holmes is in competition with Trent Cannon and Eli McGuire for the fourth running-back spot on the roster.
McGuire earned the early advantage with a total of 12 touches (six runs, six catches) for 51 yards and a touchdown.
Cowboys leading the chase if Holmes misses out
Holmes was signed by the Jets in April to the NFL’s International Player Pathway program.
Today’s game was his biggest test thus far, and if Holmes does not get the fairytale ending to his NFL dream, NRL clubs would take him back in a heartbeat.
The North Queensland Cowboys appear to be the likely destination for the Townsville-born Holmes, with the club making no secret of the fact they are desperate to sign him.
“We’d be mad not to have another conversation with him. Val could transform our backline,” Cowboys director of football Peter Parr said.
The Cowboys did recently sign Storm full-back Scott Drinkwater, but Parr said the team had the finances to afford the former Kangaroo and Maroon if he became available.
“We’d be in a position under the salary cap to have a conversation with Val or any other player of his calibre,” Parr said.
The clubs said it had not been keeping tabs on where Holmes was up to in his commitment to the NFL, but if it does not work out in the USA they would make a return worth his while.
“Certainly, depending on what he was looking for, we would be able to come up with a competitive offer for him,” he said.
“If it does not work out for him in America, then we would certainly still have interest in Val.”
At the Jets training camp on Wednesday, Holmes told journalists he could always go back to the NRL if the NFL experiment failed.
He also said it was a hard decision to head to the States, but the right one.
“It was very difficult. I was at a good club back home. I have family friends back home, a wife,” he said.
“It was a lot to leave behind to fly 20 hours across the world to do something I want to chase, but to this day I haven’t regretted anything.”
Sharks want him back, but easier said than done
Holmes was released by Cronulla last November to pursue the NFL, walking away from a $5 million, five-year contract. Pathway players on NFL practice squads earn about $181,500 per season.
His former club still harbours ambitions to get him back, too.
“I’d love to have Val back, Val is always welcome back at the Sharks,” Cronulla coach John Morris said.
Fitting him under the salary cap is another issue.
“Where we currently sit, we’re continually managing our salary cap as is, let alone adding Val Holmes into the mix, but he’d certainly be welcomed back,” Morris said.
But the Sharks are not confident he will be back anytime soon.
“I don’t think he will be back. I think he is locked in over there for at least another 12 months regardless of whether he makes the 53-man squad,” Morris said.
The club has kept close ties with Holmes since his departure. He was in the coaching box for a Sharks game while on a surprise visit to Australia two weeks ago.
“I have a good relationship with Val, he was just back supporting the boys and he wasn’t making any impressions to us that he was going to be back anytime soon,” Morris said.
“He’s really liking the transition into that game as they go into their pre-season trials. Hopefully he can make a big impression with the Jets.”