League to union code switch: The best, worst and still too soon to tell

Jared Wright
Planet Rugby looks at the best and worst of rugby league stars who have made the code switch to rugby union and whether they were successes or failures.

Planet Rugby takes a look back at some of the best, worst, and the too soon to tell rugby league to rugby union switches since the latter went professional in 1995.

Rugby Australia’s announcement of Joseph Sua’ali’i crossing over has sparked mixed reactions, depending on which code of rugby you prefer.

However, it is common for players to switch the 13-man code for the 15 aside code. We delve into some of the hits, misses, and too soon-to-tell cases.


Israel Folau

Folau has switched between the two codes twice during his playing career after his contract with the Wallabies and Waratahs was terminated for comments made on social media.

However, he is among the most successful examples of league stars thriving in union. He played 73 times for the Wallabies scoring 37 times, and at the time of writing, still holds the record for the most tries in Super Rugby.

Back for his second stint in union, he has switched Test allegiances to Tonga and plays club rugby in Japan.

Sonny Bill Williams

A two-time Rugby World Cup winner and the Offload King of union, Williams was an instant hit at Toulon when he made the code switch. He also returned to league in between his two World Cup triumphs with the All Blacks and did so again after the 2019 Rugby World Cup. Easily in the top five league to union converts.

Stephen Myler

Myler made the switch to union in 2006 after stints with St. Helens, Widnes Vikings and Salford City Reds. He will retire from professional rugby at the end of the 2022/23 season after an illustrious career where he played over 300 times for Northampton Saints, with stints at London Irish and Ospreys following.

The playmaker was less successful on the Test front than Williams and Folau due to the stiff competition for the England number 10 jersey throughout his career. Still, he is undoubtedly a legend of Premiership Rugby.

Lote Tuqiri

Eddie Jones lured Tuqiri to the 15-man code during his first stint as the Wallabies’ head coach. The speedy winger was a huge hit at the Waratahs and earned a Test debut in 2003, his debut union season.

He cracked the nod for the World Cup squad two years later and helped the Wallabies reach the final of the tournament. He would feature in the World Cup four years later and had a stint at Leicester Tigers before returning to league.

Mat Rogers

Another league star Jones persuaded to switch codes; Rogers was just as successful as Tuqiri and quickly became a regular for the Wallabies, playing 45 Tests between 2002 and 2006. Despite missing many games for the Waratahs, he was regularly selected for the national team. He did return to league in 2007, signing for the Gold Coast Titans.

Wendell Sailor

The last of the trio that Jones got to switch codes before the 2003 Rugby World Cup. Sailor did hop between the codes early on in his career but switched from the Brisbane Broncos to the Queensland Reds in 2002. He also made his Test debut for the Wallabies in his first Super Rugby season and played 37 times for Australia between 2002 and 2005 before returning to league.

Brad Thorn

A legend of both codes, Thorn won both Rugby World Cups and had an incredible trophy-laden career in league and union.

He won three NRL titles, one Super League title and two State of Origin titles. In union, he won two NPC titles, one Super Rugby, five Bledisloe Cups, three Tri Nations, one Rugby World Cup and a Heineken Cup with Leinster.

Chris Ashton

At 35, Ashton is still roaming around Premiership grounds extending his record as the competition’s all-time scorer. The former Wigan Warriors star switched in 2007, signing for Northampton Saints and has enjoyed success in the 15-man code, winning titles at Saints and Saracens. He also broke the record for the most tries in a season at Toulon and has played 44 times for England, scoring 20 tries.

Jason Robinson

One of, if not the, best league to union switch. Robinson made his first switch in 1996, playing for Bath during the Super League off-season, but made his switch permanent in 2000, signing for Sale Sharks. He quickly made his mark, earning a Test debut for England in 2001, the same year he would feature for the British and Irish Lions.

Robinson would feature at two World Cups, winning the first in 2003 and reaching the finals of the second in 2007. He also went on two Lions tours and played over 150 games for Sale and 51 for England.

Semi Radradra

Radradra has struggled with injuries of late, but since switching from the Parramatta Eels to Toulon in 2017, he has been sublime. A star of the 2019 Rugby World Cup for Fiji, Radradra impressed during his stints with French clubs Toulon and Bordeaux before joining Bristol. He helped the side reach the Premiership semi-finals in his debut season and won the Challenge Cup with Pat Lam’s team.

Ben Te’o

After a successful league career, Te’o joined Irish province Leinster in 2014. The centre infamously posted a picture of himself in an Ireland jersey supporting his Leinster teammates before heading to Worcester Warriors and playing for England.

He would debut for the Red Rose during the tour of Australia in 2016 and won the Six Nations with the side the following year, earning a spot in the British and Irish Lions squad to tour New Zealand.

While injuries hampered his union career, he still managed to crack the nod for England and the Lions, making him a success story in union.

Marika Koroibete 

In 2017, the Melbourne Rebels snatched Koroibete from their league neighbours, the Melbourne Storm. Since then, Koroibete has shone in union, making his debut for the Wallabies after his rookie Super Rugby season.

He has since notched up his 50 cap milestone for the Wallabies and sealed a big-money move to Japan with the Panasonic Wild Knights.

Ngani Laumape

The powerhouse inside centre switched to union ahead of the 2016 Super Rugby season and produced a few standout performances as the Hurricanes charged to the title. He became a regular starter for the side the following season and ended as the top scorer in Super Rugby.

Laumpe made his All Blacks debut against Samoa before the British and Irish Lions Series and featured in the first Test for the side. He made 15 appearances for the All Blacks and never really nailed down a starting role but is targeting a return to Test rugby when he is eligible for a Test switch to Tonga in 2024.

Too soon to tell

Tom Wright

Wright made the switch from the Manly Sea Eagles to the Brumbies in 2019 and has since become a regular starter for the ACT Super Rugby side. He has had several standout moments for the Brumbies and Wallabies but has yet to nail down a starting role for the latter.

He is certainly in the black at the moment and is more likely to land in the better half of this list.

Suliasi Vunivalu

There was plenty of hype around former Melbourne Storm star Vunivalu’s arrival at the Reds in 2021. However, he has struggled with a handful of hamstring injuries preventing him from properly settling into the 15-man code.

He has talent and skills, but we will have to wait to see if he can make his mark.

Regan Grace

The former St Helens superstar is yet to make his switch official after sustaining a ruptured Achilles injury in his last game in league. He is set to make his return next season after another setback at Racing 92.

So far, his move has been a failure, but that could quickly turn around when he does get on the pitch for the Parisian club.

Roger Tuivasa-Sheck

It’s hard to say that RTS has been a failure after he earned his Test debut after his rookie Super Rugby season. However, he hasn’t quite lived up to the hype of his move; neither has he changed the game as Sonny Bill Williams did for the All Blacks.

At the moment, it is trending in the wrong direction for Tuvasa-Sheck, but he could turn that around in 2023.


Benji Marshall

A league great, Marshall’s switch union has always been viewed as a flop. He played just six times for the Blues in 2014 before returning to league the following year. He signed a two-year deal worth a mammoth $500,000 a season but was released from his contract in April.

Sam Burgess 

While Marshall is the classic example of a flop in the Southern Hemisphere, Burgess is the yardstick in the Northern Hemisphere. He made the switch from South Sydney to Bath in 2014. He never really settled in a position playing flanker and centre and ultimately returned to league after England’s pool stage exit at the 2015 Rugby World Cup.

Karmichael Hunt

A talented athlete, Hunt has played league, union and Australian Football League. He signed a mega-money deal to join the Reds in 2015. He would become a multi-code international when he debuted for the Wallabies in 2017, earning six caps that year.

Although he was highly rated by then coach Michael Cheika, Hunt’s off-field issues, including charges for drug possession, ultimately led to him leaving union in 2021 to return to league.

Matt Duffie

Another former Melbourne Storm star, Duffie, joined the Blues and North Harbour in 2016. The outside back showed glimpses of promise, and after a string of injuries in the All Blacks, he made his non-capped debut for the side in 2017. However, that would not earn a Test cap for the side as he failed to press for selection again and eventually left the Blues in 2020, signing a deal in Japan.

In 2022, he announced his retirement and has since returned to the Melbourne Storm as a Pathways coach. 

Andy Farrell

Farrell had a similar playing career to that of Burgess as he struggled to nail down a position in union playing centre, fly-half and flank. He played just 28 games for Saracens between 2005 and 2009 and also earned eight Test caps in 2007.

He was selected in the 2007 Rugby World Cup team and played in the pool stage defeat to South Africa, as well as the quarter-finals, before a calf injury, ruled him out for the remainder of the tournament.

While the Wigan legend’s league career was better than his union career, he has thrived in coaching in union.

He was part of the 2013 and 2017 British and Irish Lions series coaching teams. Farrell worked as a defence coach under Stuart Lancaster with England before joining Joe Schmidt at Ireland in 2016. He took over from Schmidt after the 2019 Rugby World Cup and has enjoyed unprecedented success with Ireland.

Kyle Eastmond

An abrasive centre, Eastmond made the move from St Helens to Bath in 2011. The hard-hitting centre showed signs of promise throughout his union days and earned six caps for England. However, he never truly delivered on his promise, with injuries hampering his career.

He had stints at Wasps and Leicester Tigers after Bath before returning to Leeds in 2021 before retiring.

Lee Smith

A Leeds Rhino legend, Smith, never replicated that form in union. He had one of the shortest-ever code switches, leaving and rejoining Leeds after just two appearances for Wasps. He cited personal reasons after his contract was mutually terminated at Wasps.

However, he had a second crack at union in 2014 and, this time, played 10 games for Newcastle Falcons before again returning to league.

Josh Charnley

A try-scoring machine in league, Charnley spent 18 months in union with Sale Sharks. He played as a centre/wing and never quite translated his try-scoring prowess to the 15-man code. He returned to league with the Warrington Wolves in 2018.

Barrie-Jon Mather

Another who simply did not live up to the hype, Mather joined Sale in 1998 but swiftly departed in 2000 after 17 appearances.

Joel Tomkins

While Tomkins was hugely successful in league, he was another who did not live up to the hype in union and looked out of his depth. He did manage three England caps in 2013 but ultimately returned to league a year later.

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