Cracking the other code

On the back of Sam Tomkins’ much publicised rugby union debut for the Barbarians last week, I look at who has blazed a trail for him by converting most successfully from rugby league.

Jason Robinson collecting his OBE

Jason Robinson collecting his OBE

  1. Jason Robinson

Nicknamed ‘Billy the Whizz’, Robinson had a stellar career in rugby league, making over 300 appearances for Wigan and representing Great Britain. Having converted to union, it did not take him long to impress enough for Sale Sharks to make himself an England regular. His try in the 2003 World Cup final was one of 28 for his country and two tries for the Lions in 2005 added to his reputation as a true great in both codes.

 

Brad Thorn celebrates winning the World Cup with New Zealand

Brad Thorn celebrates winning the World Cup with New Zealand

  1. Brad Thorn

The recent rugby union World Cup winner previously had a long and illustrious career in rugby league, playing forAustralia and for Queensland in the State of Origin series. Having been born in New Zealand though, he represented the All Blacks on 59 occasions following his switch to union, culminating in the World Cup win on home soil on 23 October.

 

Lote Tuqiri poses in a Wallabies shirt in front of the Australia flag

Lote Tuqiri poses in a Wallabies shirt in front of the Australia flag

  1. Lote Tuqiri

Another Queensland and Australia representative in rugby league, Tuqiri was lured to the other code by the Australian Rugby Union in 2003, just in time for the World Cup. It didn’t take him long to become a big hit with the Wallabies as he scored in the final defeat to England and went on to win 67 caps and score 30 tries.

 

Mat Rogers breaks through a tackle for Australia

Mat Rogers breaks through a tackle for Australia

  1. Mat Rogers

Rogers played alongside Tuqiri in the 2003 World Cup final, having put an impressive representative career for Queensland and Australia in rugby league behind him. Playing in various positions across the backline, he was a key figure for the Wallabies for a number of years and earned 45 caps before returning to rugby league in 2007.

 

Chris Ashton performing his trademark swallow dive for England

Chris Ashton performing his trademark swallow dive for England

  1. Chris Ashton

Ashton scored three tries in four games for the England rugby league team and was emerging as a star of the future for Wigan when he made the switch to rugby union with Northampton at just 20 years of age. In 102 matches for the Saints he has scored a phenomenal 89 tries, helped to a large extent by a particularly free-scoring first season in National League One. He has been equally prolific with England though, scoring 15 tries in 18 games, and could become the greatest ever convert if he continues in the same vain.

 

Wendell Sailor applauds fans following one of his 37 appearances for the Wallabies

Wendell Sailor applauds fans following one of his 37 appearances for the Wallabies

  1. Wendell Sailor

‘Big Dell’ was pilloried at times during his spell in rugby union for a lack of skill and finesse. He played for his country on 37 occasions though, including the World Cup final, and scored 13 tries. He was supposed to be the Wallabies’ Jonah Lomu after starring for Australia in rugby league and whilst he may not have scaled such heights, he did have a very successful career in both codes.

 

Iestyn Harris struggles to contain fellow rugby league convert Jason Robinson in the 2003 World Cup

Iestyn Harris struggles to contain fellow rugby league convert Jason Robinson in the 2003 World Cup

  1. Iestyn Harris

Whilst he only spent three years in rugby union, he racked up 25 caps for Wales. Although he did not turn out to be the saviour of Welsh rugby following his big money move, he played plenty of games for Cardiff and scored over 100 points for his country. In rugby league, he was always a success. A Warrington and Leeds legend before switching codes, he returned to league in 2004 with Bradford Bulls and added to his Great Britain caps.

 

Sonny Bill Williams is one of the latest stars to switch codes

Sonny Bill Williams is one of the latest stars to switch codes

  1. Sonny Bill Williams

In terms of pure numbers, it is questionable how big a success Sonny Bill Williams has been so far in rugby union. However, his physical prowess and slight of hand are the equal of any player in either code. With a burgeoning reputation in rugby league for Canterbury Bulldogs and New Zealand, his star has only grown since his switch to union in 2008. Playing for the All Blacks since 2010, he has amassed 14 caps so far but has failed to nail down a permanent starting berth. New Zealand have been desperate to find a position for one of the most gifted players in world rugby though and more caps and success are sure to follow if he chooses to remain in union and with the All Blacks.

 

Berrick Barnes in action for the Wallabies

Berrick Barnes in action for the Wallabies

  1. Berrick Barnes

Some may not be aware of his roots in rugby league given he made just nine appearances for the Brisbane Broncos. Having made the decision to switch to union early, he has made huge strides in the sport. Despite struggling with several injuries and illnesses, he has gained 36 caps already at the age of 25 and is likely to add plenty more over the next few years if he can remain fit and healthy.

 

Shontayne Hape scoring for England

Shontayne Hape scoring for England

  1. Shontayne Hape

At 30 years of age and with the stigma of England’s disastrous World Cup campaign and his centre partnership with Mike Tindall forever attached to him, he may not make too many more appearances for his country. However, he was once a physically intimidating and free-scoring figure in rugby league with the Bradford Bulls and New Zealand. Since his switch to union, there has been much debate about his ability and his role but he has played 13 times for England and remains an important part of the London Irish side.

Sam who?

Sam Tomkins playing for Wigan

Sam Tomkins playing for Wigan

Much has been made in the past few days of rugby league’s latest starlet Sam Tomkins’ one-off date with rugby union on Saturday but one of his opponents, Will Genia, admits to knowing very little about him at all.

The 22-year-old, who has scored 11 tries in 11 games for England in rugby league and 26 tries in 25 appearances in this season’s Super League, will line up for the Barbarians against Genia’s Australia at Twickenham on Saturday.

Despite this phenomenal scoring record and his recent displays against the Kangaroos, Australia’s national rugby league side, Genia is not familiar with his exploits.

“To be honest I haven’t seen him play at all. Did he play in that rugby league game against the Kangaroos?” he said

“I have never seen him play.”

The scrum-half, who was named Australian Super Rugby Player of the Year last year, believes that may be to his advantage though and thinks it will allow him to play with a greater freedom.

“Just for one game, he won’t have all that pressure on the fact that he has to try and adjust and he can just go out and play and then go back to rugby league,” he said.

“So he can bring all his attributes, whatever he has. As I said, I don’t really know too much about him but being in that environment I’m sure he’ll have fun both on and off the field.”

The 23-year-old Queensland Reds star, who has already played 27 times for the Wallabies, is dubious as to what impact Tomkins will have at the weekend though given the time it usually takes to adapt to the switch in codes.

“It takes time to adjust. I played with Clinton Schifcofske, who came over from rugby league to play for the Reds and it took him a while to adjust. He was on the wing and he was accustomed to playing full back in rugby league, so there are obviously different things that you have got to bring to the table,” he said.

Rugby World Cup memory lane – 2007

Bryan Habana and the Springboks celebrate

Bryan Habana and the Springboks celebrate

It did not take long for the intrigue to build and the fireworks to start at the 2007 Rugby World Cup. In the opening game Argentina shocked their illustrious French hosts, beating them 17-12 and going on to top the group.

The Pumas also went on to beat Ireland and Scotland in the quarter-final and were succeeding in challenging the authority of the established rugby nations. That is until they met South Africa in the semi-final.

The Springboks progressed almost serenely through to the final, demolishing England 36-0 in the group stages as well as Argentina in the semi-final. Bryan Habana had also emerged as the preeminent winger in world rugby, scoring eight tries and even having time to race a cheetah.

Astoundingly, England managed to recover from some woeful group stage performances and apparent chaos and even mutiny in their ranks to battle past Australia and France in the quarter-final and semi-final respectively.

Battle really was the operative word as they scored just one try in their three knockout matches and were unable to overcome South Africa in the final. They came close, with Mark Cueto having a try disallowed by the finest of margins but, in truth, the Springboks were by some distance the team of the tounament and worthy winners.

Rugby World Cup memory lane – 2003

Jonny Wilkinson kicks England to glory

Jonny Wilkinson kicks England to glory

Arguably the greatest moment in the past 45 years of English sport was a phenomenal success but far from a surprise.

Having beaten both New Zealand and Australia in their own backyards in the build-up to the tournament, Clive Woodward and England went into the 2003 Rugby World Cup full of confidence and crucially with an unflinching belief that they could conquer the world.

Playing behind a superb and settled forward pack, Jonny Wilkinson kicked England into attacking positions and thanks to his radar-like accuracy from penalties and unparalleled drop-goal ability, they rarely left the opposition 22 without points.

Wilkinson amassed a total of 113 points but England were far from boring, scoring 36 tries on route to lifting the trophy. Jason Robinson’s sensational try in the final was an example of the cutting edge England possessed and it thrilled the huge crowds that had gathered to watch the game early in the morning back home.

Having been controversially penalised in the scrum on several occasions though, England’s chance looked like it may have slipped away as Elton Flatley kicked a last minute penalty to level the scores. However, Martin Johnson didn’t allow negative thoughts to enter the minds of his troops and after the two sides exchanged penalties in extra-time, the England pack engineered a position for Wilkinson to drop that iconic goal and the rest as they say is history.

Rugby World Cup memory lane – 1999

George Gregan celebrates Australia's triumph

George Gregan celebrates Australia's triumph

 The 1999 Rugby World Cup was the first to be held in the professional era and was hosted by Wales with more than a bit of help from England, France, Ireland and Scotland.

Expanded to accommodate 20 teams, including Uruguay, Tonga, Namibia and Spain, it was the biggest tournament to date with the three southern hemisphere giants and France once again reaching the latter stages and producing two excellent semi-finals.

Despite a complete lack of tries, Australia edged a fascinating encounter against South Africa after extra-time but it is the other semi-final that will live longest in the memory.

After finding themselves 24-10 down to the All Blacks, Christophe Lamaison, who was only playing because of a late injury to Thomas Castaignede, marshalled his French troops and led them to a remarkable 43-31 victory.

A mixture of Gallic flair and stunning kicking from Lamaison helped to turn the match around in double quick time as France shocked the favourites and once again denied them a place in the final.

As in their previous final appearance in 1987 though, France were unable to repeat their semi-final heroics and went down 35-12 to Australia as John Eales lifted the trophy for the Wallabies.

Rugby World Cup memory lane – 1995

Nelson Mandela presents Francois Pienaar with the trophy

Nelson Mandela presents Francois Pienaar with the trophy

Having been prohibited from competing in the first two Rugby World Cups, South Africa hosted the tournament in 1995 and rode along on a wave of emotion all the way to the final.

The Springboks remained undefeated throughout, beating the likes of Australia in their opening match and France in the semi-final before coming up against a ferociously powerful New Zealand outfit in the final.

The All Blacks had also swept aside everyone they came up against and the competition had seen the emergence of a force the likes of which had never been seen before on a rugby field, Jonah Lomu.

At 6ft 5in tall and weighing almost 20 stone, Lomu was unlike any other winger in world rugby and had too much power and pace for most teams to handle. He waited until the semi-final though to produce his most complete display as he simply ran over and swatted away English defenders on his way to scoring four tries.

Neither Lomu nor New Zealand could reproduce the form that had seen them score a massive 238 points in their previous three games in the final though.

Instead, South Africa epitomised the newfound spirit of unity brought about by the end of apartheid and produced a phenomenal defensive display. The Springboks marked Lomu out of the game and relied on the boot of Joel Stransky, who kicked a drop goal in extra-time to win them the trophy and send the Ellis Park crowd into raptures.

The low-scoring nature of the final mattered little to anyone who had the privilege of watching the post-match scenes, which transcended sport. The image of Nelson Mandela handing the William Webb Ellis trophy to Francois Pienaar is one of the most iconic in sport and will never be forgotten.

Rugby World Cup memory lane – 1991

Australia triumph over England in the 1991 final

Australia triumph over England in the 1991 final

The 1991 Rugby World Cup will be remembered on these shores predominantly for the hugely controversial knock-on in the final by Australia’s David Campese when England had a clear overlap and Rory Underwood looked certain to score.

The passionate Twickenham crowd and millions watching at home on television bellowed at referee Derek Bevan for a penalty try but it was not forthcoming and a solitary Tony Daly try together with the reliable boot of Michael Lynagh saw Australia to victory.

Prior to the final, England had relied on their forwards and the kicking of Rob Andrew and Jonathan Webb but against the Wallabies they came unstuck attempting to totally change their style to an open, running brand of rugby.

Despite his controversial knock-on, David Campese was one of the players of the tournament, scoring six tries on the way to lifting the trophy. However, it was Australia’s defence that really stood out and a young John Eales emerged as a future star. The six foot seven inch, goal-kicking second row forward went on to be a real force for years to come, captaining his country on 55 occasions.