Rugby league stars converting to union always create plenty of interest, but code switches are also generally met with trepidation – there have been just as many high-profile failures as there have been successes.
Converts have made a splash again recently with Melbourne Storm flyer Marika Koroibete signing on with the Melbourne Rebels and receiving a Wallabies call-up before even taking the field in a professional rugby union match, while Brisbane Broncos winger/fullback Lachlan Maranta was described by former Test star Greg Martin as “the worst signing I have ever seen in my life” after inking a deal with the Queensland Reds.
Meanwhile, controversial Parramatta Eels superstar Semi Radradra will join big-spending French rugby union club Toulon after his 2017 NRL commitments are complete.
Time will tell whether the trio live up to the hype for fans and provide value for money for their new employers, but we’ve trawled through the rugby league convert narrative to come up with the 10 best league-to-union converts since the 15-a-side game’s switch to professionalism in the mid-1990s opened the door for league stars to join the ‘Rah-rahs’.
10. Peter Ryan
One of rugby league’s most devastating tacklers, Brisbane backrower Ryan won two grand finals and was denied a third by suspension in 1998 – the same season he broke into the Queensland Origin side for the first time. Ryan was lured to rugby union, which he played at high school, at the end of 1999 by the ACT Brumbies, where his rugged approach and outstanding defence saw him excel as a blindside flanker.
Unlucky not to receive a Wallabies call-up during his three seasons in union, Ryan nevertheless created history by becoming the first player to win an Australian rugby league premiership and a Super Rugby title after featuring in the Brumbies’ 2001 final victory. Ryan went on to fulfil defensive coach roles at the Broncos, Queensland Reds and North Queensland Cowboys.
Leading up to the 2001 grand final, former Brumbies coach Eddie Jones speaks with Peter Ryan. pic.twitter.com/luqN8WnaB4
— Brumbies (@BrumbiesRugby) February 17, 2016
9. Wendell Sailor
Widely regarded as rugby league’s best winger from 1995 until his switch to rugby union at the end of 2001, Broncos great Sailor won three grand finals, scored 17 tries in 16 Tests for Australia and represented Queensland in 14 Origins. He joined the Queensland Reds in 2002 and walked straight into the Wallabies Test line-up.
Although an oft-maligned figure during his five seasons in union, Sailor made 37 Test appearances and scored 13 tries. After spending the ’06 Super Rugby season with the NSW Waratahs, Sailor was slapped with a two-year ban for cocaine use, but made an impressive two-season return to the NRL with St George Illawarra.
8. Andrew Walker
Walker was a brilliant match-winner for the Roosters during the mid- to late-1990s – making a solitary Test appearance against PNG in 1996 – but was also an unmistakably enigmatic talent at fullback or five-eighth. A Randwick rugby union prodigy before starring in league, Walker returned to the 15-a-side code in 2000, playing in the ACT Brumbies’ Super 12 final loss in his first season and kicking 21 points as the franchise claimed a historic maiden final win a year later.
A fullback for the Brumbies, Walker was predominantly selected on the wing in seven Tests for the Wallabies in 2000-01, but returned to the NRL with Manly in 2004 after a string of disciplinary breaches. A fine season for the Sea Eagles was sullied by a two-year ban for cocaine use, but the veteran enjoyed an impressive stint with the Queensland Reds in 2007-08 before coming back to league again with Brisbane Easts and later Ipswich club the Goodna Eagles.
7. Jason Robinson
Dazzling winger Robinson became an all-time great at Wigan during the 1990s and made 19 Test appearances for Great Britain and England. Robinson, who spent an off-season with rugby union powerhouse Bath in 1996, switched codes permanently with the Sale Sharks in 2000 and became one of the finest English players of the modern era.
Brilliant at fullback, wing or centre, he made 51 Test appearances for England and scored 28 tries – including a five-pointer in the dramatic extra-time victory over Australia in the 2003 World Cup final. Robinson also toured Australia (2001) and New Zealand (2005) with the esteemed British & Irish Lions combination.
6. Berrick Barnes
Barnes was being groomed as a long-term halves partner for Darren Lockyer at the Broncos, impressing in nine rookie-year appearances in 2005 as a 19-year-old before being lured to rugby union by the Queensland Reds. Barnes made his Wallabies debut at the 2007 World Cup and racked up 200 points in 51 Tests over seven seasons, making appearances at flyhalf, in the midfield and at fullback. The level-headed playmaker featured in another World Cup in 2011 during his four seasons with the NSW Waratahs, but took up a rich deal in Japanese Rugby Union at the end of 2013.
5. Lote Tuqiri
Long-striding Fiji-born winger Tuqiri was only 23 when he switched codes at the end of 2002, but he already had a premiership with Brisbane, five Tests for Australia and six Origins for Queensland to his credit. He spent seven seasons with the NSW Waratahs and was virtually an automatic selection for the Wallabies during that period, scoring 30 tries in 67 Test appearances, including two World Cup campaigns.
His ARU contract was terminated in 2009 for an undisclosed off-field incident, but he made a superb NRL return with the Wests Tigers the following season, scoring 18 tries and winning a Test recall during the Kangaroos’ Four Nations campaign. Tuqiri’s subsequent three seasons were ravaged by injury, but after a short stint with Irish Rugby Union club Leinster at the end of 2013, he was snapped up by South Sydney for the 2014 season and won another grand final at the age of 35.
4. Mat Rogers
Wiry goalkicking winger Rogers scored 1,112 points (including 75 tries) in seven seasons with Cronulla, accumulated 168 points in 11 Tests for Australia, and played five Origin matches for Queensland. Frustrated by an unfulfilled desire to play in the centres or at five-eighth, Rogers switched to union in 2002 with the NSW Waratahs.
He displayed remarkable versatility in 45 Tests for the Wallabies across five seasons, featuring in every position from flyhalf to fullback; he wore the No.15 in Australia’s extra-time World Cup final loss to England in 2003. Lauded as an outstanding convert success, Rogers returned to the NRL with the fledgling Gold Coast Titans in 2007, playing 77 games for the club at centre, five-eighth and fullback.
Mat Rogers played for the Wallabies the last time they won the Bledisloe Cup
YES, THIS MAT ROGERS pic.twitter.com/963514eeps
— Tom Read (@traread) August 27, 2016
3. Israel Folau
A gifted tryscoring phenomenon in four rugby league seasons for Melbourne, Brisbane, Queensland and Australia, Folau made a shock switch to the AFL with the fledgling Greater Western Sydney Giants at the end of 2010. The high-profile move was a dismal on-field failure, with Folau struggling to get to grips with the new code, and he was granted a release by the Giants at the end of 2012. He looked certain to return to the NRL with Parramatta, but shunned the Eels to sign with the NSW Waratahs and the ARU.
Folau was an immediate sensation, firstly on the wing and then at fullback. His outstanding 2013 Super Rugby season for the Waratahs garnered a Wallabies call-up, and after scoring a magnificent double on Test debut against the British Lions, he went on to score 10 tries in 15 Tests – equalling Lote Tuqiri’s record for most tries in a season for Australia. A vital cog of the Waratahs’ maiden title-winning team in 2014, Folau has been the only automatic selection in an ever-changing Wallabies backline in recent seasons, and has scored 20 tries in 52 Tests.
2. Sonny Bill Williams
Williams stamped himself as one of the NRL’s most dynamic and unique talents after debuting in 2004, winning a rookie-year premiership with the Bulldogs and breaking into the New Zealand Test side. Injuries restricted the devastating backrower to seven Test appearances in his first five seasons, while he became one of the most polarising figures in the code’s history after walking out on the Bulldogs in 2008 – just half a season into a five-year deal – and joining French rugby union side Toulon.
Used exclusively in the backline in union, ‘SBW’ spent two seasons with Toulon before pursuing an All Black jumper by joining the Canterbury Crusaders in 2010. Although a regular starting spot proved elusive, Williams scored six tries in 19 Test appearances (seven as a replacement), playing on the wing or in the centres. He came off the bench in the All Blacks’ gripping 2011 World Cup final win.
Williams became renowned for his ability to pop brilliant offloads in the midfield, but arguably his greatest legacy to Rugby Union was starring at second five-eighth as the Chiefs surged to a maiden Super Rugby title in 2012. The hype surrounding his return to the NRL with the Sydney Roosters was matched only by his extraordinary performances, inspiring the Roosters to the 2013 premiership and the Kiwis to the World Cup final. Williams surprised most pundits by signing on for another season with the Roosters, before returning to the Chiefs in 2015 and playing a key bench role in another World Cup triumph for the ABs.
The gifted athlete, who has also dabbled extensively in pro boxing, concentrated on Sevens Rugby during 2016 but was injured early in NZ’s unsuccessful Rio Olympics campaign, before becoming a prized signing for the Blues for 2017.
1. Brad Thorn
Undoubtedly the most remarkable code-hopper ever. Dunedin-born Thorn debuted for the Broncos in 1994 and won three grand finals, played eight Origins for Queensland and three Tests for Australia as a big, formidable second-rower, before switching codes in 2001 to chase his boyhood dream of representing the All Blacks.
He joined the Canterbury Crusaders and won a national call-up in his first season, but stunned everyone by declining his selection because he felt he had not yet earned it. Thorn sat out the ’02 season but returned to make his All Blacks debut during 2003 and featured in that year’s World Cup. He was used in the loose forwards initially, but lock gradually emerged as his best position.
After playing in the Crusaders’ 2003-04 Super 12 final losses, Thorn returned to league and immediately won an Origin recall for the ’05 series, starred in the Broncos’ ’06 premiership success and brought up 200 appearances for the club the following season. Thorn, 33, embarked on another 15-a-side stint from 2008, celebrating a Super 14 title with the Crusaders and winning back a place in the All Blacks’ pack.
He retired from international football after playing in New Zealand’s belated World Cup final success in 2011 – his 59th Test appearance – before taking up short contracts in Japan and Ireland. Thorn played for the Highlanders in the 2013 Super 15 competition and then with English club Leicester Tigers, spanning his professional career to an extraordinary 21 years.
Thorn played for Queensland Country in the 2016 NRC at the age of 41.
Honourable mentions: Clinton Shifcofske, Barrie-Jon Mather, Craig Wing, Craig Gower, Shontayne Hape, Joe Tomane, Henry Paul, Andy Farrell.
Tomorrow: Worst League Converts
*This list originally appeared in The Book of NRL Lists, written by Will Evans and Nick Tedeschi, and published by Slattery Media Group in 2014.