Since the dawn of professionalism rugby union has embraced a number of players from the other code: rugby league. We take a look at the most successful players to have made the switch.
For the purposes of this exercise we have ignored those players who first started out in union before switching to league, particularly players like Scott Gibbs and Allan Bateman, individuals who moved away from the amateur sport of union for the professional advantages of league.
All the players in the list first made their names in league before changing code.
5) Lote Tuqiri
Born in Korolevu, Fiji, Tuqiri made an immediate impact in league, becoming an integral part of very successful Brisbane Bronco teams in the late 1990s and early 2000s. He represented both his native Fiji and his adopted Australia in the code before switching to union to play for both the Waratahs and then as part of Eddie Jones’ Wallabies side that reached the 2003 Rugby World Cup final. This was all the more remarkable given he transitioned over from league to international union matches in less than a year.
In a Wallabies career that spanned 67 caps, he scored 30 tries and beat every major nation in the world – including New Zealand on four separate occasions.
4) Israel Folau
Such is the importance of Folau to Australia’s current test side that is arguably the first name on the team sheet. Like Tuqiri, his size and power prove difficult for opposition defences to handle, but he also matches his size with fantastic handling ability and excellence awareness on the field.
Folau converted to union in 2013 having previously represented Melbourne Storm, Brisbane Broncos and Australia in the other code, with a stint in Aussie rules football sandwiched in between.
Such was then Wallabies coach Robbie Deans’ opinion of Folau that he was immediately thrown into the side for the first test of the Lions series, with the winger scoring two tries on his debut. He was moved to fulback against South Africa later in the year and has remained there ever since, amassing 43 caps and 20 tries so far.
3) Sonny Bill Williams
New Zealander Williams was a huge star for both the Canterbury Bulldogs and the Sydney Roosters during two stints in league, but unlike Folau and Tuqiri the giant Kiwi spent the first few years of his union career developing as a player at French club Toulon, finding his natural position to be at centre.
In 2010 he was signed up by the NZRU and after featuring for Canterbury in the ITM Cup was called up by Graham Henry to the All Blacks’ squad to tour Europe in November. He went on to make his first start against in a 26 – 16 win, this time outside regular 12 Ma’a Nonu.
Since then Williams has gone on to gain 33 caps with 20 starts, scoring 9 tries in the process. Although previously Sonny Bill has had to bide his time behind Nonu in the pecking order, there is no doubt that he will play an integral role in Steve Hansen’s side when he returns from a ruptured Achilles tendon playing for the New Zealand sevens team in Rio this year.
2) Jason Robinson
Tiny in stature in comparison to the rest of the names in the list, ‘Billy Whizz’ was better known for his amazing acceleration and superb dancing feet rather than his physical abrasiveness, although the wee man was a solid unit for someone his size.
Gaining 302 caps for Wigan and representing Great Britain on 12 occasions, Robinson initially made the switch to union in 1996 with Bath, playing part of the season with them after the conclusion of the Super League that year. He later made the switch permanent after signing for Sale in 2000.
Having made his debut for the Sharks against Coventry in November, in February 2001 Clive Woodward called him up as a replacement against Italy during the Six Nations. After only three caps off the bench for England, Graham Henry called up the winger for the Lions squad to tour Australia, and Robinson started all three tests – scoring in both the first and last tests of the series.
In a career that spanned 56 England matches and 5 Lions tests, Robinson scored 30 tries including a score that helped England seal their first ever World Cup title in 2003. He later went on to captain his country.
1) Brad Thorn
It’s hard to argue against Thorn’s inclusion on this list, given everything he has accomplished in union. As well being part of Australia’s rugby league side, he won the World Cup with New Zealand in 2011, five Bledisloe Cups, three Tri-Nations titles, two European Grand Slams, a Super Rugby title with Canterbury and the Heineken Cup with Leinster.
He played a total of 59 matches for the All Blacks, winning 51 of them and scoring four tries in the process. What is all the more remarkable is Thorn was a league convert who successfully made it as a forward, despite the intricacies of union, the set piece and its breakdown laws.
Paul Wassell, Pundit Arena
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