Joel Tomkins and 5 Other Rugby Code Switch Busts
Rugby Union has welcomed a galaxy of stars from its 13-man cousin over the years, but not all of them have shone bright after making the switch.
The higher profile, higher salaries and better opportunities on offer all make a change from league to union an attractive proposition for the top players in the game.
The success stories include Jason Robinson, Sonny Bill Williams and Lote Tuqiri, but there have been some big name flops among the converts as well.
The latest to join the list of "misses" is Joel Tomkins. Just eight months after making his England debut in the 15-man game, he has departed his club Saracens and returned from whence he came.
Having made the decision to go back to league giants Wigan after three years as a union player, he said, per Andy Wilson in the Guardian: “The top and bottom of it is I’m a better rugby league player than I am a rugby union player.”
England fans—of both codes—would wholeheartedly agree with that sentiment.
Tomkins is in good company, as this list of five other less-than-successful code switchers illustrates.
1. Benji Marshall
New Zealander Benji Marshall lit up Austrailian rugby league with his dazzling feet and fast hands.
He was lured to union by Super Rugby franchise Auckland Blues at the end of 2013 with hopes that he might do the same in the 15-man code and bring an added dimension to the options at the All Blacks’ disposal.
The spotlight on Marshall was intense, and it didn’t take long for him to crack under the pressure. He played just 212 minutes in the first eight games of the Super XV season for the Blues, whose coach Sir John Kirwan was reluctant to pitch Marshall in so early in his new career.
Was he best at fly-half or full-back? Could he deal with the difference in the breakdown and the more complicated attacking and defensive patterns required in union? The answer came from the man himself after deciding to quit, per Liam Napier’s story in the Sydney Morning Herald:
The reality is the age I tried to do it means it wasn’t easy at all. I couldn’t change those habits. That’s a big part of why I struggled on the field.
I could have gone on down the club rugby path and tried to change my habits and be as good as I can be. But the reality of it all is I was finding it hard to change my habits from league. A lot of those habits are quite lateral. Rugby you have to be square. I was finding that quite difficult, especially at 10.
He is back in league with the Sydney-based Dragons.
2. Andrew Walker
Walker was a union age grade player in Australia but turned professional in league.
In 2000, he made the switch to union to play for the ACT Brumbies and even scored a try for the Wallabies during the 2001 Lions series. But by July of 2003 he was gone again.
As the BBC reported, Walker was made a better offer to go back to the 13-man game: "I have missed the excitement of league."
"We made Andrew what we considered to be a fair offer but the gap between the two was enormous," Brumbies chief executive Rob Clarke said in a statement.
"Realistically it was an offer from Manly that Andrew couldn't refuse."
3. Brian Carney
Carney was orginially a Gaelic footballer before being plucked from that sport into rugby league, where he excelled.
Five successful years at Wigan were followed by a move to the NRL with Newcastle Knights. But he left to change codes and joined Munster in 2007.
He was 30 at the time, and his stay in his native Ireland lasted just two years before he returned to league with Warrington Wolves.
He earned four Ireland caps and was part of the 2007 World Cup squad, as well as flirting with the seven-a-side version, but he is far from remembered as a success.
4. Henry Paul
Paul was a star in league for Wigan and the Bradford Bulls. And he made a promising start to his union career, playing well for Gloucester and earning England recognition with three caps under Sir Clive Woodward.
Things fell apart quite quickly, however, after he was hauled off by then-England coach Andy Robinson after just 26 minutes as he struggled to impose himself in an autumn test with Australia in 2004.
At Gloucester he also fell foul of the coaches as the Guardian’s Mike Averis reported:
After a party thrown for the England centre Mike Tindall by his girlfriend Zara Phillips in October, Paul failed to make three training sessions. [Director of rugby Dean] Ryan handed down 'a final written warning', fined Paul three weeks' money—the maximum—and has not selected him since.
Paul was restricted to playing Sevens for England until, in April of 2006, he went back to league, signing for Harlequins RL.
5. Gary Connolly
Connolly was a star for Wigan and Great Britain in the 13-man code. He left it all behind to join Harlequins in 1996 but failed to hit the same heights. He carried a reputation as having something of a conflicting diet, as the Guardian’s Andy Wilson pointed out:
Talk of Connolly's diet recalls the story from his Harlequins days, when Will Carling and Co. were fascinated by the contrast between his drinking and eating habits—he would drink them under the table one night; insist on peeling the skin off his chicken the following lunchtime.
However well he fitted in with his new team mates in the 15-man game, his spell didn’t last long.
He quickly returned to league and Wigan before spells with Orrell back in union and then Leeds Rhinos after reneging on his retirement in 2001. Then, at the age of 34, he pitched up at Munster in 2005, where he stayed for a year.
At no point did his exploits in union match those from his days in league.