New Gold Coast Titans signing Jarryd Hayne could reach new heights on NRL return

Has there ever been a more highly anticipated comeback match than Jarryd Hayne's return to rugby league on Sunday afternoon?

In all likelihood, the Gold Coast stadium will be full when Hayne runs out with his teammates to take on the New Zealand Warriors. Some narks will argue that this match was probably going to pull a decent crowd anyway, given the current form of the Titans, the importance of the match and the healthy support in the area from expat Kiwis.

Yes, yes, yes, all of this is true. But rest assured if there wasn't one ticket sold for this match before Hayne's contract announcement, then I guarantee you every last ticket would have been sold to watch this Sunday afternoon event.

Since season 2007 when the Gold Coast Titans re-entered the competition under their current logo, we've seen average crowds slowly dwindle. In their comeback season, the Titans averaged 21,489 fans to each game. In 2008 it was a healthy 21,618, then it dropped away – 19,248, 17,877, 15,428, 14,404, 14,029, 13,196 for the next six years – and in season 2015 attendances dropped to 11,251.

It will be a record crowd today. No doubt the future of home crowds for the Titans will be directly linked to how well he plays over time.

One cannot deny the enormous interest the Hayne signing with the Titans has created. I have no doubt that viewing numbers will break a record for a 2pm Sunday broadcast of league in this country.

Ultimately, Hayne's on-field performances will determine whether or not this is a one-off, or if interest in the Gold Coast club is maintained throughout the remainder of his contract. I guess it poses the question: has there ever been a bigger crowd-pulling superstar than Hayne in the history of our game?

The extra 10,000-15,000 tickets purchased to watch him play will be significant. I will be more interested in the total viewing audience on Fox Sports when the match is beamed live around the country and overseas.

I guess there have been moments in time where an individual could command such an audience of league and non-league supporters.

I don't remember much about crowds in the 1950s and '60s before live television broadcasts of our sport. Dad would tell me stories of crowds flocking to the SCG to watch the likes of Clive Churchill or the great Dragons teams.

I can remember the first State of Origin match played at Lang Park in Brisbane in 1980. Sceptics rated the concept as just a gimmick. When big Arthur Beetson, dressed in a maroon jersey, led the Queenslanders onto the field in front of a packed house, the vibrations were heard and felt through lounge rooms throughout the country courtesy of live TV coverage. It was a huge moment in our game and I wonder whether it would have had the same impact if not for Beetson's presence. He gave what many thought was a questionable concept enormous credibility.

Queensland's victory over NSW on that night, I believe, is the major reason why Origin survives today as the No.1 event on the sporting calendar in this country, 36 years later.

When little Allan Langer was ordered home by Queensland coach Wayne Bennett to play in game three of the Origin series in 2001, again it was one of those massive moments we will all remember. History shows Alfie starred in the decider to help Queensland claim the shield. The performance led to Langer returning home to play in the NRL for the Broncos. However, his form was never quite the same and his presence never really reached the heights of that amazing crescendo.

The return of Sonny Bill Williams to rugby league with the Roosters in season 2013 also created tremendous interest and swelled the average home crowds for the inner-city club to record levels.

You may be able to think of other players and other times. Benji Marshall in his younger years was a crowd puller. He had an enormous effect on the young people who followed our game at that time. Kids in backyards and parks everywhere were trying to replicate the Marshall step. He was a superstar.

Anthony Mundine was a crowd puller. When he left league to take on a boxing career he filled the Entertainment Centre in Sydney for his first fight. His bouts have been selling well on pay TV ever since.

While he made not have drawn such huge crowds to league matches when he was playing for the Dragons, there can be no denying that his rugby league profile created an image that saw many people follow his boxing career so intently.

I reckon if he had made a comeback to rugby league after a stint in boxing, he would have filled any stadium in the country for his return match.

Jarryd Hayne?

Well, this is just going to be enormous. Everyone will be glued to the TV in anticipation of his performance. He hasn't played rugby league for more than two years, but has probably been the most talked-about NRL player in the media during this time.

What Hayne achieved in going to the NFL and playing for the San Francisco 49ers, as a running back and return specialist, has to be one of the most extraordinary accomplishments by an Australian league player in our history.

I never thought he could do it. I reckon most people felt the same. Yet there he was, 12 months after walking on Parramatta, suited up in a 49ers helmet running routes on the biggest stage in US sport. It was an extraordinary achievement.

Since Hayne's announcement that he was going to join the Gold Coast, this club has enjoyed more media and more publicity than at any time in its history.

It is one of the smartest recruitment decisions rugby league has ever seen. I believe the Titans will benefit enormously from his presence. It's not that long ago people were calling for a removal of this club because of their dire financial position and the fact it appeared they had lost the war for hearts and minds of sporting supporters on the holiday strip.

Hayne can change all that, and he can change it in a big way. If he can return to the form we all know he is capable of, the Titans will go from being a chance of making the top eight to maybe even a genuine premiership contender in the space of a week. That may seem like an outlandish prediction, but if this fella hits the straps the way we know he can, on top of the tremendously impressive season his new teammates have already been putting together, who knows where this thing will end.

On the other hand, don't underestimate the pressure on this young man when he returns this afternoon. I don't know of too many players in history who could have 2 years away from the elite level of rugby league and be able to walk out onto the field and have an immediate impact. It won't be easy for him and I have no doubt he will be heavily targeted by all opposing teams.

Hayne made his first-grade debut for Parramatta against the Panthers in round 11 of season 2006. When he left league in 2014, he had completed 220 first-class matches and scored 136 tries. He was the Dally M rookie of the year in 2006, Dally M winger of the year 2007, Dally M fullback of the year 2009 and 2014. He was the Dally M player of the year in 2009 and 2014.

He won the Rugby League Week player of the year award in 2009 and 2014. He won the Brad Fittler Medal as NSW's best player in Origin in 2007, 2009 and 2014. He was named the Rugby League International Federation's player of the year for 2009 and the RLIF fullback of the year 2009.

It remains to be seen whether or not Jarryd can return to being the rugby league player he was before he left our game. But given that he is still only 28 years of age, there is also a chance his greatest rugby league moments are yet to be written.

For the past seven years Hayne has trained privately with the best speed coach in the country, Roger Fabri. Roger claims that Hayne has recently returned from his stint with the Fiji sevens team in the best aerobic and anaerobic shape he has seen him in.

His final comment on Hayne certainly got my attention. He said: "Jarryd has always put in when he has trained with me, but his last three sessions have been ridiculous. He is the best I've ever seen him."

Wow! Look out, everyone, the Hayne Plane could be ready to soar in our game again.

I'll certainly be watching.

Phil Gould is the general manager of Penrith Panthers.

This story New Gold Coast Titans signing Jarryd Hayne could reach new heights on NRL return first appeared on Brisbane Times.