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Rugby League vs Rugby Union: Crossing the divide

Players convert from Rugby League to Rugby Union and vice versa with varying degrees of success, writes Matt Cassidy.

The movement of players between Rugby Union and Rugby League is nothing new.  For many years, Union players decided to turn their backs on the fifteen-man game for the reward of being paid to play.  There were resounding successes in the simplified game, with Welsh aces Scott Quinnell, Jonathan Davies and Scott Gibbs to name but a few. However, since the Union authorities chose to go professional in 1995, the transfer of players has almost been exclusively from League to Union.  Sonny Bill Williams and Benji Marshall were high-profile movers in New Zealand, and Bath signed Sam Burgess in recent weeks.  However, the success of these rugby converts has been mixed.

The reasons why League converts’ impact on the Union code vary from player to player are wide-ranging.  The fundamentals of both codes are the same, as one has to be able to catch, pass and tackle.  The difficulties for the convert from the thirteen-man game start when all the technicalities of Union come into play.

Rugby League has no lineouts, no breakdown, no mauls and the scrum is non-contestable.  Due to the lack of these aspects in the game it is not a surprise that no League player has made any indelible mark on Union as a forward.

The men who do have success are the outside backs.  Wing and full back have similar duties in both codes, as they look to beat men with speed and dancing feet.  Defensive positioning is all but the same.  Another position where League players generally excel is inside centre.  Rugby League’s ball-carrying is a carbon copy play of what the crash ball is in Union.  Number 12s are expected to use brute force to get over the gain line and if possible provide an offload, a skill at which League converts are experts.

The success of League players in Union depends on a number of factors.  The ability to pick up the rules and skills of Union quickly is obviously crucial.  However, arguably the biggest factor is the talent of an individual who can play both codes with ease.

The Big Hits

Sonny Bill Williams: The man who redefined the backhanded offload.  Sonny Bill is the king of the rugby crossover; he has now made his third move between the codes.  His explosive carries and flash offloads which create opportunities for team mates earned him a place in the All Blacks World Cup winning squad in 2011.  He was also New Zealand Heavyweight boxing champion in his spare time!

Israel Folau: Another man who likes to display his athletic abilities across various codes.  Along with League and Union, he also played Aussie Rules professionally.  He announced his name on the world stage with a brace of tries in the First Lions test.  He came to Dublin in November and dethroned Rob Kearney as king of the high ball, producing a display of fielding Garryowens few have ever witnessed.

Jason Robinson: Nicknamed Billy Whizz in his Rugby League days, Robinson terrorised Union defences with his quick feet and explosive speed.  Twinkle toes was an integral part of England’s World Cup winning team, scoring a try in the final.

Should Have Stayed In League

Andy Farrell: England backs’ coach tried his hand at playing the fifteen-man game in the last decade with little success.  A big problem for Farrell was that coaches could not find a position to avail of his talents.  Nicknamed Mr. Rugby League, in Union he could have been called Mr. Rubbish.

Brian Carney: Ireland’s League convert played for the international side four times.  He struggled to adapt to the technicalities of Union.  He was infamously selected for Ireland’s World Cup squad in 2007 ahead of Tommy Bowe and Luke Fitzgerald.  Only Eddie O’Sullivan can explain that decision.

Henry Paul: He was a part of the successful Bradford Bulls and there was great hope for the New Zealander when he made the switch.  He will always be remembered running around Thomond Park at full back like a headless chicken for Gloucester in the “Miracle Match.”  That day you would have thought Paul was catching a bomb instead of a rugby ball when trying to field an O’Gara Garryowen.

Pundit Arena, Matt Cassidy.

Featured Image By Geoff Trotter (Flickr: All Blacks – Sonny Bill Williams) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons.

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Author: The PA Team

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