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In a league of their own?

The name Sonny Bill Williams elicits different responses. Some love him… some do not. Some rate him… again, others do not. Many rugby league superstars have made the switch to the 15-man code – but how many have done so successfully? Timmy Hancox delves a bit deeper.

There is often a great deal of hype that surrounds the arrival of a league ace in a union side (take Sonny Bill, for instance), but far too often even great league players have failed to live up to expectations in union.

The former league star currently in the spotlight is undoubtedly Mr Williams, but the jury is still out on whether or not he has what it takes to be a long-term success in union – not to mention the fact that he continually seems to be linked with a move back to the 13-man code.

Former Springbok flank Rob Louw is one of the few high-profile South African players to have experienced both codes at the top level.

And the former Wigan man is one of those people unconvinced by Williams’s exploits in union thus far, believing that he still has a long way to go if he is to live up to his billing as one of union’s big-name players.

“Rugby union is a game of instinct, so it is difficult for players like Sonny Bill to adjust to our game. It’s much easier for us to adjust to league than the other way around,” Louw told this website.

“I’ve heard that Sonny Bill might be going back to league, and it wouldn’t surprise me. Even though he is big and exciting it is a major adjustment to switch and if you look at the World Cup he hardly played.”

Louw does explain that Williams has the raw talent to become a force in union, but warns those singing his praises that there is still a lot of hard work to be done.

“I think Sonny Bill could probably adjust if he hangs in there, but at the moment his defence is very bad,” Louw explained.

“If you watch him closely he slips a lot of tackles, because he isn’t used to the more open game that we have in union. League us a much more defensively controlled came and you hardly get open play – if you do get open play then it’s a try.”

Stormers backline coach Robbie Fleck – a known admirer of rugby league’s various nuances – finds himself on the other side of the argument to Louw. In fact, Fleck believes some of the skills the big Kiwi leant in league have helped him make an impact in union.

“Sonny Bill struggled at the beginning, but the reason why he is now so effective is because of his running lines and his off-loading, and he certainly didn’t learn that in union,” Fleck told this website.

But Sonny Bill aside, Fleck did concede that successful conversions from league to union were few and far between, with the former Bok centre admitting: “A lot of superstar league players don’t necessarily do well in union.”

When union turned professional in 1996, a stream of league converts made their way from the 13-man game to the 15-a-side code, a fact which is underlined by the 1997 British & Irish Lions tour to South Africa. Back then, coach Ian McGeechan called up no fewer than six league players (Dai Young, Scott Quinnell, Alan Tait, Scott Gibbs, Allan Bateman and John Bentley) all of whom made a significant impact in their shock series victory over the Springboks.

However, the hype was shortlived and Gibbs was arguably the only player of the group to have had any sustained success in union following the tour. An argument could perhaps be made that all six players had roots in union before moving to league for financial reasons during union’s amateur days, which made the initial transition back to union far easier.

“A lot of guys thought at that stage [when union turned pro] that league players could come across and make it in union. But I knew they wouldn’t make it,” Louw said.

“The only player who has really made it was Jason Robinson, but nobody else has really made it. Some great league players have tried to come across and haven’t been anything special playing union.

“League is more of a bangers game and their skills aren’t at the same level of the union boys. It’s a completely different game.”

Robinson was a massive success and flourished for Sale, England and the Lions and might have given false hope to some other superstars.

“Mat Rogers was one guy who I thought was brilliant at union before he went back to league, but he played union at school which would have helped him to adjust,” Louw explained, adding weight to his argument from above. “Wendell Sailor was a superstar at league and never really adjusted.

“Andy Farrell was another superstar at league and was nowhere in the 2007 World Cup for England,” added Louw, “he was just so slow and cumbersome.”

The most recent example of a league star not being able to adapt was young Sam Tomkins for the Barbarians against the Wallabies at the end of 2011. Tomkins has an unbelievable try-scoring record in league, crossing the whitewash 72 times in 96 matches for Wigan, and while he did score for the BaaBaas he was very obliviously out of his depth in that one-off appearance.

“Tomkins in the Barbarians match struggled and looked completely lost,” Louw reaffirmed.

The complexity of union in comparison to league makes switching codes with any real degree of success near impossible for anyone who doesn’t have an understanding the basics from an early age.

“If you have a background in union from school before you playing league, then you might have a chance to adjust,” Louw stated.

However, once in a while a Robinson does turn up so there could be hope for Sonny Bill Williams if he sticks it out in union and, perhaps, keeps out of the boxing ring.

By Timmy Hancox

* In the next part(s) of our rugby league v rugby union series, we will speak to the likes of Fleck, Louw and Ray Mordt (like Louw, a league convert at some point), about other differences between the two codes, how union could learn from league and which SA youngster could just benefit from his experience of rugby league.

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