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Cross-code Hits & Misses

With the news that Sam Burgess will switch codes from Rugby League to Rugby Union when he sings for Bath from the South Sydney Rabbitohs in October, we thought we would have a look at some of the cross-code hits and misses.

While Union remained an amateur sport the trend was for League to poach players from Union, however since the dawn of professionalism in 1995 that trend has reversed. Here are our top five League to Union converts…and our bottom five:

Cross-Code Hits:

1.    Brad Thorn

A rugby league international with Australia, Thorn then moved to Union and won the World Cup with New Zealand in 2011. Not only that, he was a key cog in the machine, become part of the elite ‘leadership group’, and as far as we can tell, the only League convert to make a success of being a Union forward. Outstanding player, and hard as nails.

2.    Jason Robinson

‘Billy Whizz’ was Great Britain and England Rugby League star before he switched to Rugby Union at the start of the millennium. Within months he was starring for the Lions in Australia and then went on to win the World Cup with England in 2003 and is considered as one of England’s all time greats. So good that he made both codes look easy.

3.    Sonny Bill Williams

Sonny Bill was described as a freak of nature when he first crossed codes, and it was quickly apparent why. His power and strength are astonishing and his ability to offload is pretty much unrivalled. He was League star before he switched to Union where he then lifted the 2011 World Cup with New Zealand. He then switched back and reached the 2013 Rugby League World Cup Final, and is now coming back to Union again. Success seems to follow him and that is no coincidence. Intriguingly, Sonny Bill is the man that Sam Burgess is most often likened to, something that ought to put a smile on English faces.

4.    Israel Folau

Folau has only been playing Union for a year but already he is ranked as one of the top full backs in the world. He was a star League player for Australia, and has also played Aussie Rules, as if to prove just how all round his talent truly is. At the rate that Folau has been progressing he could well be shooting further up this list in years to come, remember that try against the Lions in the 1st Test?

5. Lote Tuqiri

Lote Tuqiri starred for the Fijian and Australian Rugby League sides before switching codes to Rugby Union in 2002 and becoming a key player in the Australian charge to the 2003 World Cup final. At his peak he was one of the finest wingers in either code, however unfortunately the sour end to his Union career rather dulled the memory. He was part of a great crop of Wallaby converts in the back three at that time though, which also included Wendell Sailor, Mat Rogers, and Anthony Walker.

Cross-Code Misses:

1.    Lesley Vainikolo

Vainkolo was a decent Rugby League player for The Canberra Raiders and Bradford Bulls and gained 12 caps for New Zealand. When he switched codes by moving to Gloucester from Bradford Bulls it was amidst much fanfare and he was expected to become a real star for club and country. He did go on to be capped a few times by England but was something of an emblem for fans of a shambolic era for the England Rugby Union side.

2.    Henry Paul

Henry Paul was considered a bit of a Super League star throughout the nineties, and won 24 caps for New Zealand, so when he signed for Gloucester at the start of the 2001 season it was announced with great excitement. He actually played fairly well for the club and made his England Union debut against France in 2002. However he had a nightmare debut and neither fans nor management really ever forgave him. He did get a run of games in the 2004 6 Nations but that was at the start of England’s post World Cup decline and he has never been remembered fondly.

3.    Shontayne Hape

Shontayne Hape was a Bradford Bulls star and won 14 League caps for New Zealand. He switched codes to Union with Bath in 2008 and was targeted as the man to fill the 12 shirt for England in the 2011 World Cup. To be fair to Hape he had a solid time with Bath and certainly brought defensive solidity and a good offloading ability, gaining that expected 2011 World Cup place. However Hape became a byword for England’s lack of imagination in the midfield, where the name of the game seemed to be to bludgeon past the opposition rather than waltz.

4. Iestyn Harris

It is perhaps unfair to include Iestyn Harris on this list. It is not beyond the realms of reason to suggest that his involvement in the Welsh Rugby Union XV from 2001 to 2004 helped to lay the foundations for the success that has come Wales’ way in the decade since. However as one of the stars of Great Britain and Wales Rugby League up to that point, and he was the creative star for both. Unfortunately when he crossed codes he struggled with the tactical aspects of the game and unfortunately his time in the Welsh XV was a period that was one of the lowest ebbs for Welsh Rugby Union

5. Andy Farrell

Like Harris, it is maybe a little unfair to include Farrell here as his switch to Union unfortunately coincided with a terrible dip in fortunes for his national side. Andy Farrell was the England and Great Britain Rugby League through the nineties and early ‘noughties’, so his transfer to Union with Saracens and England was considered something of a coup. Unfortunately for him things started off with confusion as he was shunted between 6 and 12. He was universally praised for bringing an aura to the side that had been missing since Martin Johnson, and he did reach the 2007 World Cup final (though he had long since been shunted from the starting XV). However ultimately his time in a white shirt had to be judged a failure. The real triumph though? England secured his coaching services and the playing services of his son. Both of with were valuable assets to the Lions this summer as well as England.

A few who went the other way:

Sir Ian McGeechan has been widely quoted as saying that the success of the 1997 British and Irish Lions would never have happened without the involvement of six players who returned from Rugby League having begun their careers in Union.

Those 6 were Scott Quinnell, Scott Gibbs, Allan Bateman, Dai Young, Alan Tait, and John Bentley, Jonathan Davies would have followed the same path too had he been available to tour. Each had begun their careers in Union but had switched to League as Union continued its amateur stance. When Union turned professional though they came back, and were instrumental to that Lions success.

The cross code switch has definitely been a two way street over the years, but since Union went professional the trend has definitely been for players to move from League to Union, with Chris Ashton, Kyle Eastmond, and Joel Tomkins the most high profile recent English transfers.

Do you think that Sam Burgess will have the success of the likes of Thorn, Robinson, or Sonny Bill, or will he be more of a Lesley Vainikolo? Let us know what you think via the comment box below or via @FifteenRugbyXV

It would also be great to hear what you think of our top and bottom five cross-code internationals, and if you think anyone else should be on either list.

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