Well, Chris Ashton (ex-Wigan Warriors, now Northampton Saints wing) and Shontayne Hape (ex-Bradford Bulls, former New Zealand rugby league international, now Bath centre) are league to union converts who have both been named in Martin Johnson's Elite Player Squad this week. With their inclusion for the forthcoming Six Nations (and potentially the World Cup next year) I can't help but wonder if their background in the league version of the game has given them any sort of advantage over the purely union born and bred backs? It certainly seems that way, as Ashton's try scoring form this season has been nothing short of prolific and he is currently the top try scorer in the Guinness Premiership, and Hape has been turning heads at Bath with his strong and often scintillating displays at centre.
Ashton (top) and Hape: The new stars of England rugby?
My boyfriend is a massive Leeds Rhinos fan (although don't hold that against him) and he has an encyclopaedic knowledge of all things rugby league. If he doesn't know a fact about rugby league, it's probably because it's hasn't happened yet. Therefore with Ashton and Hape making waves in the game, I decided to quiz him to try and find out what positive attributes ex-league players bring to the game of rugby union. This is what he said:
Fitness, Strength and Speed
Rugby league is played at a much quicker pace than union. The forwards are fitter, leaner and quicker and the backs are quicker still, with footwork that would make Brian O'Driscoll cry with envy.
League players are more adept at passing the ball into gaps and running into gaps rather than into the man and taking the ball into contact. With their extra speed and quick hands comes a quicker and more free flowing game.
It's no coincidence that Chris Ashton always seems to pop up on the shoulder of his team mates when they sprint up field. If you watch any game of Super League you will see this all game long, and this attribute of his game is a something that has been drilled into him during his time at Wigan.
The physical conditioning of rugby league players (especially forwards) means often they tackle harder, and are then quicker to get back into the defensive line. I can't imagine many Guinness Premiership forwards making a tackle, running back ten metres, making another tackle then running back ten (x another 4) over the course of eighty minutes without gasping for an oxygen mask.
It might work very well when a league star joins the back line of a union side, but what about the forwards?
I can't imagine that many rugby league forwards would successfully make the transition into a rugby union pack (Andy Farrell, anyone?). After all, scrums in rugby league are just a group of blokes leaning on each other for five seconds and having a bit of a breather.
The forwards aside, where the backline is concerned I think that rugby league players have the ability to inject a certain x-factor into the game. Look at World Cup winner Jason Robinson for example. He was excellent in both codes, playing rugby league for Wigan and Great Britain before changing to union when he joined Sale in 2000. Robinson immediately made an impact and he played his first game for England in 2001 in the Six Nations game against Italy. A try scoring performance in two of the Lions tests in the tour of hell to Australia later in that year, and that memorable try in the final of 2003's World Cup made Robinson the best cross code rugby player of all time. Well, in my opinion anyway.
And here are a couple of others:
Lote Tuqiri - Tuqiri found success with the Brisbane Broncos and won recognition with Queensland in their victorious State of Origin campaign in 2001, along with international honours for the Wallabies before switching to the fifteen man game. He won 67 test caps for Australia's rugby union side and found his way onto the scoresheet in 2003's rugby World Cup Final. Tuqiri is now peddling his wares on the wing for Leicester Tigers and bagged a couple of tries against their arch rivals Wasps last weekend.
Jonathan Davies - No, not the young bloke who's playing for Wales at the moment. I mean the other Jonathan Davies, the one who now plies his trade as a partisan commentator for the BBC. Davies started off playing rugby union in 1982 for Neath before moving to Llanelli in 1988, in a year where he helped Wales scoop the then Five Nations Triple Crown before going on to captain his country on their tour to New Zealand. Controversially, Davies then switched codes and moved to Widnes, and during his foray into rugby league he also played for Warrington and Australian sides Canterbury and Queensland. Davies returned to the fifteen man game in 1995 where he picked up another hatful of Wales caps, and has been touted as the most talented rugby player of his generation.
Other successful cross-code players include Scott Gibbs, Brad Thorn, John Bentley, Alan Bateman, Alan Tait, Scott Quinell, Wendell Sailor, Dai Young and Sonny Bill Williams.
Tried but Failed
So it is possible to switch between codes and do it effectively, but these handful of players (along with a few others who I have no doubt forgotten) have to be contrasted with players who didn't make anywhere near as big an impact: Henry Paul (now at Leeds Carnegie) won only six caps for England; Lesley Vainikolo only got eight caps, as did rugby league hero Andy Farrell, whose massive move to Saracens didn't quite go according to plan. Chev Walker and Karl Pryce both made the switch to union before skulking off back to the thirteen man game less than a year later.
Still, with ex-Leeds Rhinos and England international league star Lee Smith swelling the ranks with his move from the Rhinos to Wasps this season and with Worcester signing former Australia rugby league international Luke Rooney, are we seeing the start of another trend of league to union code switches, with players attracted by the higher earning potential that the union game can offer? I don't really care if this is the case, as long at it benefits the game of rugby as a whole.
With all that said, I wonder how long it will be until we see more ex-league stars trotting out at Twickenham? It's probably only a matter of time... For now, let's keep our fingers crossed that Chris Ashton and Shontayne Hape will add themselves to the list of league to union success stories.