Sonny Bill Williams has already reached the top in Rugby League and Rugby Union. He’s played for the Kiwis and the All Blacks, a feat only a select few have achieved. At 191 centimetres and 108 kilograms, he is athletic gold. He’s just turned 28. The man they call SBW is quitting the National Rugby League to join the professional Rugby Union ranks at the end of this year and try to reclaim his All Black jersey once again.
Sam Burgess has reached the top in Rugby League. He’s played for England, Great Britain and turned out in last year’s World Cup. At 196 centimetres and 116 kilometres, he dwarfs even Williams and has speed, size, power and the footwork of a back. He’s not just athletic gold. He is arguably the prime athlete of the code. The man they call Slammin’ Sam is quitting the National Rugby League to join the professional Rugby Union ranks at the end of this year to try and get an England jersey to match his League one.
Two great athletes, both going from League to Union with high expectations. These are the modern day professional code-hoppers.
So what attributes to coaches and trainers look for in athletes from League to Union and vice-versa?
One word: athleticism.
Players need to be athletic enough to handle the training and demands of both codes. Genetics help. Body shape helps. Being the height, size and weight of the gentlemen above also helps.
But both possess amazing athletic gifts that make them attractive propositions to make the transition across different sports.
Leading Rugby Union and Rugby League physical performance managers, Tom Tombleson of the New South Wales Waratahs and David Boyle of the Cronulla Sharks agree…
“A person’s sporting history is a good indicator of whether they could make the transition between sports. For example, playing Rugby League (in the case of Williams) and then going to Rugby Union will help. They usually have a good engine (stamina), can run, can step and are strong in contact – these are very good indicators if they can adapt to Rugby.???
“But being athletic isn’t just about being quick and explosive. A good all-around athlete (such as Israel Folau and Williams) are genuinely tall, lean, are strong playing different positions, have long limbs and are built to be explosive and evasive. But it is really about doing the little things well and learning the sport.???
Tombleson adds that the best code hoppers will focus on their strengths from Rugby League and maximise these.
David Boyle, who has coached for the Australian Rugby Union and a number of NRL clubs, is of the view that it comes down to two things: the position they play and defensive ability.
“There are lots of Rugby Union players who don’t make the transition into Rugby League effectively and vice versa as they play in two different positions. The ones that were successful in making the switch played in similar positions – he cites Lote Tuqiri who played on the wing in both codes as a great example.
In Rugby Union you need to be able to defend. In League you can hide on the wing. Benji Marshall didn’t make the transition as he isn’t the best defender.“
Burgess’ position in Union is unconfirmed, but going from the second-row in League to the centres in Union is a fairly similar role, says Boyle, which should help the Englishman.
They are different games with very different physical demands. And you can see that in the difference in training between professional Rugby League and Rugby Union. But with their athleticism and time training they are well placed to make the switch.