In the latest of his posts from the land of the Vegemite sandwich, John Aussie takes a look at the thorny issue of the rugby players who switch codes…
The big news from last week was that Rugby League Superstar™ Sam Burgess is to join rugby union side Bath in a bid to make it to the 2015 World Cup in the white of England. So as the NRL’s sporting diamonds jump codes for the cash, I’d only ask one question…are they really any good? At the moment Bath RFC (and no doubt the English Rugby Football Union) is seeing value in Sam, as proven by that multi-million dollar contract for an athlete that has never played the game before. So what is the track record of rugby league players that make the move to union?
Exhibit A (Wales, 2000): the English born Iestyn Harris who switched following a successful career at Warrington then Leeds. The WRU offered a big blank cheque to have Iestyn play rugby for Wales. Iestyn struggled with his general kicking game, having many kicks charged down and hence putting Wales under pressure. Iestyn was moved from fly half to inside centre to remove the pressure of the charging defensive lines and to try and give him more thinking time. But it never worked (bar one good game for Cardiff). His return back to league was his only escape from the Welsh public who craved a descent performance from this prematurely labelled saviour of Welsh Rugby.
Exhibit B (England, 2005): Andy Farrell, another league superstar but yet another convert flop. He was the highest points scorer in Wigan’s history before his move to Saracens. His four years with the club (and England) were littered with injuries and false starts. Success for Farrell Senior in union has only started after retirement and his transition to coach.
Exhibit C (New Zealand, 2008): Sonny Bill Williams, A New Zealand born rugby league talent who attracted the big contracts in the 13-man code. Sonny decided to walk out of his league contact at the Canterbury Bulldogs (a Sydney based league side) and signed with French rugby union side Toulon. In his first game he was sin binned for using an incorrect tackling technique. From there Sonny went on to represent New Zealand in their Rugby World Cup winning campaign starting most of his games for the All Blacks from the bench. Yes being selected for the All Blacks is a major win for a player switching codes, but Sonny went back to league after the world cup and is now playing for the Sydney Roosters. Next year Sonny is switching again in a bid to make the New Zealand world cup squad. Sonny Bill is probably the most successful rugby league convert but even his contribution has been patchy at best.
There have been many players that have failed in their bid to succeed in union as they have succeeded in league, but they are all winners in the eyes of their bank managers. So take a bow Iestyn Harris, Andy Farrell, Chev Walker, Shontayne Hape, Mark Gasnier, Craig Wing, Lesley Vainikolo, Wendell Sailor and Henry Paul (to name but a few). For a list of those who succeeded, I point you in the direction of the lonely four: Craig Gower, Brad Thorn, Jason Robinson and Sonny Bill Williams.
Changing from league to union is not a 12 month plan. It takes at least three consecutive rugby union seasons to fully understand the skills involved to be a truly world class convert.
To Sam Burgess, Bath and England Rugby Union, good luck. You’ll need it.