Sonny-Bill Williams, Wendell Sailor, Jason Robinson, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Lote Tuqiri are just some of the big names who have defected to rugby union over the last 30 years. Whilst money often plays a part, the lure of traveling the world and playing in big stadiums for your country is arguably the biggest factor of them all.
Whilst the international gap between rugby league and rugby union is seismic, largely due to differing priorities, developing international rugby league will almost certainly make the lure of defecting to the rival code less appetizing.
The best players want to play in the biggest stadiums in front of the biggest crowds. Achieving this is less of a problem for those who are eligible for State of Origin, which in the past has been almost every player in the NRL. These days it is a different story though, as some of the game’s best players don’t qualify and are left to sit by and watch on with envy. Players such as Jason Taumalolo, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, James Fisher-Harris, Viliame Kikau, Brandon Smith and Joey Manu would have almost certainly played State of Origin if they were available for selection. Players past their prime such as Kieran Foran, Shaun Johnson, Sam Burgess and Benji Marshall would have also been selected at one stage.
Relatively rapid changes in the demographics of rugby league now mean the claim that Origin is the best of the best simply isn’t true. Whilst this writer is not advocating for changes to the brilliant product that is State of Origin, it’s important to see the writing on the wall; that the lure of an international rugby union jersey is something the game will never overcome as long as international rugby league doesn’t reach its potential.
— Everything Rugby League (@ERLEAGUE) August 19, 2021
The lure of an All Blacks jersey for New Zealand eligible players is so strong that Newcastle Knights star Kalyn Ponga is prepared to switch international elegances. When first choosing his representative rugby league allegiance, Ponga told Travis Meyn of the Courier Mail in early 2018 “I’ve always felt comfortable at heart here in Australia. I was born here and did my schooling here…To be honest it wasn’t really that tough. I knew at heart that I wanted to pledge my allegiance to Queensland and Australia”.
Later in 2018, Ponga was quoted telling TVNZ “I’m not too sure what my future is going to hold and whether I’m going to stay in league or change codes, but if I was to go back to union, I would want to strive for that black jumper… I think it’s the pinnacle. They are the best sporting organisation in the world, the stats have showed that”. Whilst Ponga is entitled to switch national allegiances along the lines of All Blacks and Kangaroos legend Brad Thorn, there’s little double that Origin has played a part in keeping him in the game. Not all NRL stars are eligible for Origin though. Would Roger Tuivasa-Sheck have defected to rugby union for less money if the desire to play in front of big crowds at big stadiums was quelled by State of Origin?
In a unique rugby league solution to this problem, young players such as Jarome Luai can both represent their cultural heritage and play State of Origin, as current eligibility rules allow a player to be selected for a tier-one nation and a tier two nation if their genealogy so qualifies them. This is to the disadvantage of the other two tier-one nations, in particular New Zealand, as a lot of Kiwi eligible players are also eligible for other Pacific Island nations, meaning they can play for both their heritage nation and participate in Origin. This stop gap solution falls apart if Fiji, Tonga and Samoa start to beat tier one nations on a regular basis, fueling calls to promote them to tier-one nations themselves.
England’s 2013 Rugby League World Cup team manager Barrie-Jon Mather was adamant that then superstar Sam Burgess’s defection to rugby union was fueled by the forward getting a taste for playing at an international level in front of a big crowd. When referencing the World Cup semi-final between England and New Zealand at Wembley Stadium, Mather told journalist Brad Walter ”That (game) made a massive difference to him. There were 75,000 people all cheering for England and he hasn’t experienced that. Russell (Crowe) was saying he has not had a chance to play for the Blues and I think if he had experienced that atmosphere he may have stayed but you can’t blame him for wanting him to go and try something”.
It’s relevant to note that some players who have been lured to rugby union after starting their professional careers in rugby league have a background in the rival code. Rugby union has a larger presence in countries such as New Zealand and Fiji so it’s quite rare for a player not to have played rugby union when young.
Joey Manu, widely acknowledged as the game’s best centre is a chance of being the next star NRL player to defect to rugby union. “He is a quality league player and like always happens at times like this, it is up to the player to figure out where his dream is” All Blacks coach Ian Foster recently told Stuff NZ.
It’s hard to envision a day where their Kiwi jersey rivals the prestige of an All Blacks jersey but as long as the gap is so large, the game will remain a high risk of losing its stars. This is a problem that is likely to intensify as more players from outside of New South Wales and Queensland debut in the NRL. As stated above, the game also faces some tough decisions if more nations are eventually promoted to a tier-one status.
The next four years are possibly the most important for international rugby league in generations. Investing in the games international footprint will go a long way to minimising the likelihood of stars jumping to the rival code.