The NRL’s high-profile code-swappers to rugby union

Caption: Sonny Bill Williams and code-swapping in rugby go hand-in-hand. Photo by Gerard Barrau // CC BY-SA 3.0

The NRL has witnessed many of its biggest talent opt to switch codes in our sport and ply their trade in rugby union. Whether it’s for improved international prospects, better exposure or an improved pay cheque, code-swapping in rugby is a bone of contention among many NRL fans down under. Let’s take a dip into the history books and look at some of the most high-profile code-swappers and how they later fared in the world of rugby union.

Ryan Cross: From the Roosters to the Force

Ryan Cross started out with the Sydney Roosters back in 1998 and made an immediate impression, scoring two impressive tries against the Sea Eagles. However, two serious leg injuries would put a hault to Cross’ development in the next couple of years. It wasn’t until 2003 when Cross was fully fit and in a competitive condition, and he ended that campaign as the Roosters’ leading try-scorer. He was also named the Roosters’ player of the season in 2005, before the Australian Rugby Union offered Cross a tempting two-year contract to play for the new Super Rugby outfit, Western Force.

An impeccable debut season for the Force saw Cross called up for Wallabies contention by the coach at the time, Robbie Deans. He scored 30 points in 19 appearances for the Wallabies, and in the latter stages of his rugby union career he would go on to play in France’s lucrative Top 14 league.

Brad Thorn: A star was born in New Zealand rugby union

Brad Thorn is somewhat unique in that he has represented both Australia and New Zealand at rugby. He played for the Brisbane Broncos from 1994 and was later selected for Australia’s rugby league side in 1998. However, after claiming a third NRL Grand Final win for the Broncos in 2000, Thorn opted to test his skills in rugby union, returning to his homeland of New Zealand to play for the Crusaders in the Super 12, and Canterbury in the National Provincial Championship.

Thorn’s code switch was an inspired move, allowing him to play in his preferred position as a lock and become one of the most successful rugby union players in New Zealand’s history. Thorn not only has a World Cup winner’s medal to his name, he also won a Super Rugby title and the Heineken Cup in Europe, which more than helped to answer his critics.

Sonny Bill Williams: A trailblazer for code-swapping in New Zealand rugby

The enigmatic Sonny Bill Williams became only the second player to represent New Zealand’s much-heralded rugby union side after playing for the country’s rugby league team. A four-year spell in the NRL with the Bulldogs helped cement a huge reputation for Williams, bagging 124 points in just 73 appearances. From 2008 onwards, Williams was enticed to switch codes to rugby union, playing for French side Toulon after a controversial mid-season departure from the NRL.

Williams blamed the NRL’s existing salary cap for his decision to change codes, and says he wouldn’t look back. He made his debut in the All Blacks squad in 2010 and is still an important part of the team today as one of the most powerful centres in world rugby. Williams has also been known to try his hand in professional boxing too, with bouts in 2009, 2011, 2012 and 2015 respectively.

Wendell Sailor: One of Australia’s leading dual-code rugby internationals

The powerhouse that is former Australian winger Wendell Sailor. Photo by Eva Rinaldi // CC BY-SA 2.0

Brisbane-born Wendell Sailor scored an impressive 65 points in a three-year spell, representing Australia’s rugby union team between 2003-2006. The Wallabies could do with someone of his height and power for this year’s World Cup. Australia are considered somewhat outsiders in the upcoming 2019 Rugby World Cup betting, with even Ireland and Wales said to have a much better tilt at becoming world champs.

Sailor started his rugby career in the NRL with hometown club the Brisbane Broncos, who are still one of the most successful clubs in NRL history. In an eight-year spell representing the Broncos, Sailor scored 122 tries in 196 appearances in a Brisbane shirt. In between the latter stage of his Broncos career, Sailor enjoyed a short spell with English rugby union outfit Leeds Tykes, averaging more than a try per game in a Tykes shirt. He then returned down under to play rugby union for the Reds and Waratahs, whilst securing a place in the Australia national team, featuring in the 2003 World Cup final.

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