I had a discussion on Twitter about one such convert, Sonny Bill Williams – the incumbent All Black Inside Centre and former NRL prodigy.
SBW shocked the League world when he turned his back on an already glittering League career to chance his hand at Union. By the relatively tender age of 24, SBW had notched up seven League test appearances for New Zealand but ditched it all for the deeper pockets of Toulon and Union.
It was a huge risk but one which certainly seems to be paying off. He has been one of the stand out players for the Crusaders as they battled to the final of the SuperXV competition this year. He has also had an immediate impact on the international scene as well – almost single-handedly redefining his position.
He is one of a succession of League to Union converts; Lote Tuquiri, Lesley Vainikolo, Chris Ashton, Shontayne Hape, Brad Thorn, Stephen Myler. But for every Jason Robinson there is an Andy Farrell, a Chev Walker, a Darren Pryce, and Iestyn Harris – high profile cross code failures which have added fuel to the sceptics fire.
So why have some succeeded where others have failed? What makes a successful convert? In my opinion it depends entirely on the position and the stage of the player’s career when he switches.
Rugby League is a punishing game of brute force, power and physicality. Tackling plays such an important role in League and players are renowned for their upper body strength. But what is really interesting about League players – and what makes them such a hotly desired commodity – is their skill level and ability to make decisions under pressure.
League demands strong and reliable ball skills throughout the team but also needs highly creative minds to unlock defences. This is true of Union as well but more so in League as you are faced with a flat wall of defenders for each of your six tackles – there are no breakdowns to suck in defenders, no driving mauls. This means backlines need to be inventive and cunning with their patterns.
The successful League-to-Union converts in recent years have all been at the peak of their careers and physical condition. Jason Robinson was able to make such an impact because he still had his searing pace and quickly picked up the tactical awareness. Andy Farrell, however, came to Union in the twilight of his career and no longer had the physical edge to become the player England had hoped…although the signs are looking good for Owen!
Positions are also important to a triumphant conversion. Chris Ashton has made a huge impact since he crossed over to Union – arguably because his position is very similar in both codes. When Andy Farrell crossed over, there was no real idea where he would play. Perhaps Saracens wasted the opportunity by trying to play him in the back row? I suspect Toulon will have a similar issue with Willie Mason this year.
So where does that leave us? Big spending Union clubs will always be tempted by top League players to bolster any backline. There are headaches around coaching the strategic differences but the pace, power and skills of League backs will always turn heads and flutter chequebooks.
The same can’t be said of forwards though. I think there are far too many intricacies of technique in the set plays and cheats learnt through experience for a player to succeed in the pack.
I am looking forward to seeing how Kyle Eastmond gets on at Bath. From what I have seen, he has the full package and is an extremely exciting prospect. Oh…and if Billy Slater and Benji Marshall ever fancy a go at Union, they’ll be warmly received at Cow Lane!!