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Why are Rugby Players switching from Rugby League to Rugby Union

by Neil Jennings

Within the last 20 years, there have been many rugby players that have switched codes. Gone are the days when players switched from Union to League. Since rugby union became professional in 1995, many rugby stars are doing the exact opposite, favoring rugby union over league.

Today, dual-code rugby internationals are becoming more and more common, with players, known as code converts, securing senior international experience in both rugby league and union. As two of the closest codes in sport, rugby league and union do share some similar skills. So what are the attractions to switching codes? Salary wise there is quite an increase from league to union and the lure of international selection is one that sways player’s decisions. Playing for your country in front of large crowds is something that many aspire towards.

The first rugby league star to switch to union was England’s Jason Robinson in 1996, after five years playing league. Robinson is widely regarded as the ultimate dual-coder. Within just four months, he was helping England lift the Webb Ellis trophy and had secured his place on the Lions tour.

Other big sporting names that have also switched to union include Kyle Eastmond, Andy Farrell and Sonny Bill Williams. Former St Helens star, Eastmond switched from Super League to Union in 2011, joining Bath Rugby. His career has skyrocketed since then and he is now in the current England squad.

Farrell, who is now on the England coaching staff, announced his retirement from league in 2005, bowing out as England national rugby league team’s second all-time goal scorer. He joined the Saracens and went on to make his England debut in the Six Nations, shortly followed by his 2007 World Cup appearance.

Sonny Bill Williams has switched from league to union several times throughout his career. As only the second person to represent his country, New Zealand, in rugby union after playing for his country in rugby league, Williams is well known for his talents in both codes. He made his league debut in 2004 for the Canterbury Bulldogs before switching to union to join Toulon mid-season in 2008. 2013 saw Williams go back to league, joining the Sydney Roosters for the 2013 NRL Season. The same year he was named the world’s best rugby league player, before returning to New Zealand Rugby Union in 2014 to join Counties Manukau.

The most recent code convert is Sam Burgess who has switched to union so he can play for England in the Rugby Union World Cup if selected. Starting his career at Bradford Bull’s in 2006, Burgess was a first-team regular within a year and gained the title of young player of the year. In 2007 he also confirmed his place in the Great Britain squad for the Test Series. He left the UK in 2009 to join the South Sydney Rabbitohs and enjoyed a five-year career with the team, which ended with him playing in the 2014 NRL Grand Final and winning the Clive Churchill Medal for best player. In February 2014, it was announced that Burgess was switching to rugby union, signing a three-year contract with Bath Rugby. He will play his first game in December this year and has already been dubbed the UK’s Sonny Bill Williams.