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 worst 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. Tasesa Lavea
An outstanding schoolboy rugby union prospect in Auckland, Lavea joined the Melbourne Storm and was named Dally M Rookie of the Year in 2000. The goalkicking five-eighth made his Test debut for the Kiwis at that season’s World Cup, but returned to union after playing just five games for the Northern Eagles in 2002. Lavea was a regular in the No.10 jumper for the Auckland and Counties provincial sides, but struggled to hold down a position during Super Rugby stints with the Auckland Blues and Waikato Chiefs. He later played with Clermont in France and English club Sale, playing Test football for Samoa in 2010-11.
9. Lenny Beckett
Former Australian Schoolboys winger Lenny Beckett – brother of long-serving Penrith flyer Robbie – enjoyed an impressive start to his NRL career, scoring 12 tries for heavyweights Newcastle in 2000. After two subsequent seasons for the Northern Eagles, he joined Super Rugby franchise the ACT Brumbies. A reserve in the Brumbies’ final-winning side in ’04, Beckett became a regular starter the following season. He then faded off the map, however, failing to earn a Super Rugby contract for 2006 and instead turning out for club side Sydney University.
8. Lesley Vainikolo
Vainikolo was a wing powerhouse in four seasons at Canberra, before scoring an incredible 143 tries in 148 games for Super League heavyweights Bradford and featuring in two grand final victories. He also crossed for 14 tries in 14 Tests for New Zealand. Vainikolo was a hyped acquisition for rugby union club Gloucester in 2007 and was given an armchair ride into the England squad after just nine games in his new code, qualifying on residential grounds. The giant winger featured in each match of England’s Six Nations campaign, but failed to make the anticipated impact and was left out of subsequent training squads and touring sides. Vainikolo joined French club La Rochelle in 2012.
7. Michael Witt
Clever Toowoomba-born five-eighth Michael Witt toiled away for a regular first-grade chance with Parramatta and Manly, before finding a niche at the New Zealand Warriors. Witt was a key driving force in the Warriors’ 2007-08 finals campaigns, while also proving himself as one of the NRL’s genuine sharpshooters off the kicking tee. But the 25-year-old slipped down the halves pecking order during the 2009 pre-season and made the surprise move of signing with the Otago Rugby Union. Witt played for the Taieri Eels in the Dunedin club competition and made the Otago provincial squad, but struggled to get off the bench and resumed his 13-a-side career with doomed Super League side Celtic Crusaders in 2010, before linking with London.
Remember when Michael Witt played union for Otago?
— 🗑 (@BigFunk__) April 19, 2014
6. Jarrod Saffy
South African-born Saffy represented the Australian Schoolboys, Under-21s and Sevens sides in rugby union, but earned his full professional stripes after joining Wests Tigers in the NRL. A big, aggressive forward, Saffy made his first-grade debut as a 21-year-old in 2006 and made 61 appearances for the Tigers and Dragons across five seasons, culminating in a premiership ring as part of St George Illawarra’s 2010 Grand Final side. He was a highly-anticipated signing for Super Rugby franchise the Melbourne Rebels’ inaugural 2011 campaign, but failed to live up to the 15-a-side promise he displayed as a junior. The openside flanker played 35 games in three seasons for the Rebels before signing with French club US Bressane.
5. Luke Rooney
Tall winger Luke Rooney famously scored two tries in Penrith’s 2003 Grand Final upset of the Roosters, using that triumph as a springboard to participating in back-to-back NSW Origin series victories and scoring six tries in six Tests for Australia in 2004-05. After a 140-game career for the Panthers which netted 65 tries, Rooney accepted an offer from French rugby union powerhouse Toulon. But his 15-a-side foray was consistently thwarted by injuries. Rooney played just 22 games in two seasons with Toulon (alongside Sonny Bill Williams) before taking a deal with Super Rugby newcomers the Melbourne Rebels for 2011, but a stint with New Zealand provincial side Hawkes Bay was cut short by injury, and he played only two games for the Rebels before rejoining Touloun.
4. Timana Tahu
Gifted three-quarter Tahu ranked among the NRL’s most prolific try-scorers when he made a shock switch to rugby union at the end of 2007, leaving behind a record of 102 tries in just 143 games for Newcastle (including a four-pointer in the Knights’ 2001 grand final win) and Parramatta. He also crossed eight times in 12 Origins for NSW, and bagged five tries in five Tests for Australia. Joining the NSW Waratahs on a big-money deal in conjunction with the ARU, Tahu was fast-tracked into the Wallabies’ squad in his first season, making four Test appearances against New Zealand, South Africa and Italy. He was tried at wing, centre and second five-eighth, but failed to settle in the new code and abruptly returned to the NRL at the end of 2009 – just two years into his four-season union contract. Tahu’s rugby league comeback included an immediate Origin recall, but has been hampered by injury problems and racism controversies, of which the Aboriginal and Maori star was on both sides. The veteran had another crack at union in 2016, however, joining Denver in the newly-formed PRO Rugby competition in the United States.
Qantas Wallabies Australian Rugby Union has today reached agreement with Timana Tahu to release .. http://bit.ly/oMg5n
— Qantas Wallabies (@qantaswallabies) August 5, 2009
3. Sam Burgess
Englishman Burgess left the NRL as arguably the greatest rugby league forward in the world, departing after his heroic Churchill Medal-winning performance in the Rabbitohs’ 2014 grand final triumph. But he returned just over a year later with his tail between his legs after a failed union stint in his homeland. Signing with English heavyweights Bath, Burgess was manufactured into an inside-centre – a position that he was never suited to, unlike archrival and fellow code-hopper Sonny Bill Williams – and fast-tracked in the England Test squad, debuting against France in August 2015. He featured in three of England’s four pool games at the subsequent World Cup (against Fiji and Australia off the bench either side of a start against Wales) as the host nation was dumped out of the tournament in humiliating fashion. Burgess bailed on his deal with Bath and the RFU to head back to South Sydney ahead of the 2016 NRL season, winning a place back in the England rugby league Test team.
2. Nathan Blacklock
One of Rugby League’s greatest-ever try-scorers, Blacklock embarked on one of the shortest code switches of all time in 2003. The Indigenous winger topped the NRL’s tryscoring charts in three straight seasons (1999-2001), and although he was chosen in the 2001 Kangaroo Tour squad – playing one Test against each of Papua New Guinea and Great Britain – his constant and inexplicable snubbing by NSW selectors reportedly contributed to his shock departure from St George Illawarra midway through 2002. Blacklock linked with the NSW Waratahs in 2003 (playing alongside another new League recruit in Lote Tuqiri) but made just five Super Rugby appearances. He was subsequently dropped from the Waratahs’ reserve side for disciplinary reasons during the first season of a two-year deal, and was back playing for the Dragons by June. Blacklock finished his NRL career in ’04 with the remarkable record of 121 tries in only 142 games, before joining Super League club Hull FC.
1. Willie Carne
The world’s best rugby league winger during the early-1990s, Roma product Carne won two grand finals with Brisbane among 134 appearances for 72 tries, played 12 Origins for Queensland and scored 10 tries in as many Test appearances. Carne’s career stalled after he was the victim of several nasty high shots in 1994-95, and he switched to rugby union’s Queensland Reds after a forgettable ’96 campaign for the Broncos – becoming the first high-profile league star to switch after Rugby Union turned professional. After a tentative start in the 15-a-side game, the 28-year-old was ultimately unable to force his way into the Super 12 franchise’s line-up and retired from professional sport altogether in 1997.
Honourable mentions: Ryan Cross, Mark Gasnier, Joel Tomkins, Cooper Vuna, Karmichael Hunt
*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.