Making the switch from League to Union

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The two worlds of rugby union and rugby league come from very different places.

In the case of the former, it was invented in 1823 when a schoolboy called William Webb Ellis at the eponymous Rugby public school picked up a soccer ball and decided to run with it. Some 48 years later, in 1871, the Rugby Football Union was formed.

From the outset, this made union more of an upper-class game for the more leisured classes who could take plenty of time off work to play and to train and who generally had a large and steady income.

While the game was popular across all social classes, there was a feeling that it needed too many sacrifices on behalf of working-class men to play, for example by taking time off work, risking injury when playing and not receiving any pay.

Therefore, in 1895 the Rugby League split away from the RFU and established a very different kind of game. Players could be paid for taking part and the rules were changed to make it a faster-moving sport in which players would be less prone to injury.

For a long time, there was a clear division between the two forms of the game in which rugby union remained an amateur sport, while league was also played at the professional level. This all changed in 1995 when the increasing demands on players meant that payments were allowed for the first time. This changed the world of rugby union forever, as far more money came flooding into the sport, therefore meaning every aspect could be upgraded. This included stadiums, resources, and training facilities. Rugby betting for union has also become far more common, as the sport has gained popularity and arguably become more prominent than rugby league.

There had previously been a number of examples of players switching from union to league, with one of the highest profile examples being Jonathan Davies who moved from Llanelli to the league side Widnes in 1989. But post-1995 there was financial incentive to make the switch in the other direction. For some players, this was a big success, for others, less so.

Jason Robinson

Surely one of the most successful was Jason Robinson. Well known for his great speed and agility, his skills were much in demand when he decided to switch from playing for league side Wigan to the nearby union side, Sale Sharks.

Just four months after the switch he made his first appearance in an England shirt and went on to prove himself invaluable in whichever of the back positions he was asked to play in.

Over his union career for the national side he went on to score 30 tries, including one in the famous 2003 final against Australia.

Sonny Bill Williams

Another player who made a big success of the switch was Sonny Bill Williams, a player who has moved between the two variants quite regularly.

After a successful time playing in the NRL with Canterbury Bulldogs, in 2008 he decided to head for Europe and to play for the French side Toulon. He subsequently returned to Canterbury and played in no less than 19 tests for the All Blacks including helping to secure the 2011 World Cup.

In 2012 he moved to Japan, again to play union before joining the Sydney Roosters, winning the NRL title and playing in the 2013 Rugby League World Cup Final for New Zealand

Israel Folau

The imposing physical presence of Israel Folau - at 6' 4" and 16 stone - has made him a popular target for teams in both kinds of the game who need a player who can combine this with great agility.

After three years in league rugby that saw him turn out for his club 91 times and for Australia eight times, he moved to the Waratahs in 2013. Following this move, he too went over to Japan to play for the Red Hurricanes. Unfortunately, injury saw him side-lined for the season.

Then, also like Williams, he decided to return to the world of league in January 2020 by signing a 12-month contract with the Spanish side, the Catalan Dragons. This beast of a man always makes a huge impact on any game he plays in.

Brad Thorn

After winning a couple of NRL titles and a World Club Championship with the Brisbane Broncos, not to mention two state-of-origin victories with Queensland and an impressive run of test match appearances too, Thorn was a big name.

So, he had a lot to live up to when he signed for the Canterbury Crusaders in 2001. Fortunately, he was able to deliver and by 2003 was a permanent fixture in the All Blacks too.

In 2005 he returned to league for another successful stint with the Broncos before going back for an even more successful time with Canterbury which ensured that his medal cabinet would be filled forever.

Sam Burgess

Of course, some players' experiences have not been quite so successful when they've attempted to switch, and Sam Burgess is a prime example of this.

Once he had established himself as one of the best forwards for the South Sydney Rabbitohs, he decided to make the change both to union and playing as a flanker for Bath.

After just 21 games for the English club he received the call-up from the national side, and it turned out to be far from a happy experience. In matches against Fiji, Wales and Australia he failed to impress, and it was England's dismal performance in the 2015 Rugby World Cup which saw them go out at the pool stage that drove him return to league.