Should League Fans Want Players To Succeed Cross-Code?

Going back decades in some cases, and a lot more recently in others, there has been something of an exchange program between rugby league and rugby union. It dates back to a time when league players could get paid for what they did, while union stars were in it for the love of the game (plus whatever they were paid under the table, as any honest union fan could tell you). In the modern era, however, the exchange has been much more common in the other direction. Players who reach a certain level in the 13-man game are often headhunted to become union players. The same rarely happens today.

As a rugby league fan, you are then left with the question of whether those players should go into rugby union with your blessing and your best wishes. The varying degrees of success that league players have had – and the reaction that they get from union fans – can be difficult for league fans to get a grip on. While NRL fans would have looked at how Sam Burgess lit it up for the Rabbitohs and been keen to bet at that he’d do just as well when he switched codes, there will have been at least an equal number that felt he’d used league as a stepping stone. When it didn’t go well, some of those will have felt vindicated.

What is the general balance of success and failure?

The eventual arrival of Burgess in the 15-man code was a clear case of English rugby union leaders wanting to emulate the success of Jason Robinson’s switch, and the more immediate example of Sonny Bill Williams’ World Cup-winning move from Kiwi to All Black. A lot of league fans wave a player off with best wishes if they’ve put the work in as a league player. So there was a strong sense that Burgess could do a similar job for England that Williams had done for New Zealand.

What emerged was a mess. Clearly, in planting him with Bath in the Premiership, the RFU hadn’t really thought much about his progression plan. There was debate over whether he should play as a forward or in the backs. This decision was made easier when Burgess refused to train as a lineout jumper, meaning he was picked at second ⅝ for club and country. Also, he was rushed into the international setup with a view to playing in England’s home World Cup – and flamed out as England were eliminated at the pool stage. 

While Burgess’s switch was not a positive one, the existence of Williams and Robinson shows that if a player is committed to the change, they can flourish. And given that Williams switched back and forth between codes, it’s also clear that he still respected the league game enough to be a committed player.

Is there a benefit in switching for the league fans?

With the bulk of departures being in a single direction, it’s understandable that league fans look at the interchange between games with at least a healthy dose of skepticism. Union invariably has better funding and bigger audiences, and to see another sport asset-strip your own is galling. It’s understandable that a lot of league fans were defensive of Burgess when he failed in England, but maybe it’s OK to root for a player to fail when they jump to rugby union. It’s clear that whether they sink or swim, it’s not going to lead to more respect for league as a game.

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