Looking out over Leicester Square, Harry Mallinder pauses to consider his past and the future. It’s a bitter Monday morning, the frost nibbling at the windows even with the sun shining bright, and the former rugby player is on the eighth floor of a London office block, ironing out the details of his new sporting pursuit.
In a different world, Mallinder might have been up at Franklin’s Gardens, driving Northampton’s rise into Premiership table-toppers, or waiting for a call from Steve Borthwick with a Six Nations squad naming on the horizon. Perhaps he’d already have a handful of caps, perhaps he’d have rather more - for so long, of course, it seemed that Mallinder was pre-destined for the international stage.
The son of a coach who seemed to have just about everything, he was once English rugby’s golden boy. In 2016, he captained and kicked England to home triumph at the U20 World Championship, recording two tries and 23 points in a final thrashing of Ireland; a year later, he was in Eddie Jones’s senior squad to tour Argentina. Tall, muscular, quick enough, and comfortable at ten, 12 or 15, if you were to build a back ideally suited to the modern game, it would have looked something like Mallinder.
But life in rugby is rarely simple. A serious knee injury in 2018 hampered Mallinder’s progress, and further fitness setbacks followed to disrupt those smooth, quick strides. It was hoped that a decision to pursue a playing opportunity in Japan would re-ignite his career; a two-year stint in the Far East came to an end in the spring without a single appearance for the Ricoh Black Rams.
Now, it is time for something different. With a hopeful smile and declaration of intent, he reveals his new challenge – like Louis Rees-Zammit, who has walked away from Wales and the Six Nations, he’s signed up to the NFL’s International Player Pathway.
“It’s a fantastic opportunity,” Mallinder beams, the rugby convert one of the first specialists to join the IPP hoping to make it as a kicker or punter. “This is a fresh start.
“I think it is something I’ve always been fascinated by. Obviously, it was quite a long shot and there was no real opportunity there for a long time, but hearing about this, I thought why not give it a go. But I’m not just here to make up the numbers. While I want to enjoy every moment of this experience, I’m also here to make it happen. I want to make this my thing.”
Mallinder is one of 16 athletes from other sports chasing their American football dream, including Rees-Zammit, former Connacht back Darragh Leader, ex-Coventry lock George Smith and a number of prominent Gaelic footballers. The players begin training at the IMG Academy in Florida before the end of the month, before showcasing themselves to NFL scouts at the Combine in March.
The addition of kicking and punting hopefuls is a fascinating development. While the technique differs from rugby, there are perhaps more transferable skills and fewer elements to hone than for those attempting to make it on offence or defence. Though he notes that he is more of a novice than some of his fellow participants, the long-limbed Mallinder appears well-equipped to make the switch.
“I just love kicking,” he explains with evident ardour for sport’s simplest skill. “Since before I could walk, I kicked any type of balls that I could get my hands on. I love the pressure. I like it when it is dead quiet, or people are booing, or you can hear someone say, ‘you’re going to miss’. I love proving people wrong.
“About two weeks before the trial date, I ordered myself a replica ball off the internet and I had a couple of sessions on my own in a field full of cows. Then I went to the trials, and it was like being a kid again, going to a county trial or academy trial, where you don’t know anyone or what to expect. It went well.
“I like to think that at 27 I’ve had exposure to elite and high-performance environments but I’m at an age where I am young and have lots of energy. I think it is a great balance and a great time to give this a go.”
Mallinder has already dealt with plenty of toil and turmoil in a journey that might have dulled the sporting ambitions of even the brightest talent. But he presents as a contented figure, happy to have a new challenge to attack.
The 27-year-old is all too aware that he will not simply walk in to the league. Only five IPP graduates have made it to an active NFL roster since the program began in 2017 – fellow rugby converts Christian Wade, Christian Scotland-Williamson and Alex Gray are among those to have tried and just fallen short. But there is hope in his eyes and steel in his glare. Should fate look kindly upon him, he will have more than earned a stroke of overdue luck.
“I’m not one to dwell on the past, or worry myself on what has been. I’ve absolutely loved my rugby career, and it gave me an opportunity and life that I am so grateful for. Some good experiences, some bad. Now this is a fresh opportunity.
“I don’t spend too much time thinking about the bigger picture. Physically, I feel great, and I’m just enthused to get going. This opportunity is at my fingertips, so I’m doing everything between now and that date at the combine to make it happen.
“I’m mindful of the fact that this is a rare opportunity. As soon as this popped up, it was a definitive yes in terms of me wanting to pursue it. I’m not even thinking about rugby now; my eyes are set on making this NFL dream a reality.”