Rugby Union

England can reach the top with rugby league converts

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England have come close time and time again to breaking into the upper echelons of international rugby union, a place currently occupied by two stalwarts in the form of New Zealand and South Africa.

Clearly the national side needs an added boost and said boost could come in the form of further rugby league converts.

Rugby league players switching to union have not always had the impressive careers that their potential would have suggested. The likes of Andy Farrell and Lesley Vainikolo were rushed into the England set-up and floundered somewhat in the unknown territory.

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Others, Shontayne Hape for example, have had success but limited success at that. There must be a reason behind such failure, but what could that reason possibly be?

In the case of the aforementioned trio, the rise from a club rugby union player to international was rapid, and fairly premature judging by their careers. In contrast, the likes of Kyle Eastmond and Chris Ashton plied their trade for a prolonged period of time at club level before stepping up to the national side.

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The same could be said of Joel Tomkins who could possibly have won more international caps had he not chosen to return to Super League.

The prime example

Whilst this is all a case of perception, fans and players alike are witnessing a rugby league convert first-hand at the moment in the form of Sam Burgess.

Undeniably the best league player of British origin to 'jump between codes', Burgess has been tried and tested at two separate position at club level so appears to be given a 'fair crack of the whip, as it were, however his call up to the national training squad for the World Cup could arguably be premature and potentially untimely. 

How good Burgess could be is unknown, but the attributes he possesses are clear for all to see - at 6'5" and almost 19 stone Burgess is a man mountain, which he manages to combine with fearlessness and breathtaking athleticism.

Raw capabilities do not necessarily translate into an international star, but Burgess evidently has the potential to mimic the likes of Lote Tuqiri, Brad Thorn and Berrick Barnes; Burgess' pure physical stature could even see him echo current cross-code rugby union superstars Israel Folau and Sonny Bill Williams.

Obviously, many of the league converts are suited for the back-line within rugby union, in fact it's rare that a convert plays in the forwards - Burgess and Thorn being the only notable players to achieve said feat.

That being said, England have very promising strength in depth when it comes to their 'pack' and the thought of players with a rugby union nous combining with the pure athleticism that Sam Burgess and the likes of Maro Itoje and Courtney Lawes possess is frightening - tonnes of space will be created for the back-line and thus this is where England must focus in regards to recruitment. 

Sam Tomkins

The decorated rugby league fullback is still only 26 years old and even has a union appearance to his name - a try scoring debut for the Barbarians versus Australia - and has previously been linked to a union switch on numerous occasions.

Tomkins' direct lines of running coupled with his ability to beat defenders and score tries could translate seamlessly into the union game, whilst his consistency in regards to making last-ditch one-on-one tackles is perfectly suited to playing fullback in rugby union. On the exterior, the transition for Tomkins seems fairly 'doable' whilst his raw talent is undeniable.

Theo Fages

The Salford french-born scrum-half is one of the hottest properties in Super League at the moment and his decision to hand in a transfer request at his current club should put Aviva Premiership clubs on red-alert.

The diminutive playmaker has been at Salford since the age of 16 so the residency concept applies for him to play for England, and at the tender age of 20, Fages is an entity for which the potential is limitless.

Whether the French rugby league international would consider playing for England let alone playing rugby union is unknown, but if there is even a slight chance then a team should take it. Fages would be very similar in the union scrum-half position to the likes of Joe Simpson and Danny Care as he is a 'slippery customer' and has the pace to snipe around the breakdown and create his own space as well as space for others.

Kallum Watkins

The Leeds Rhinos centre is now 24 years old and has already been representing the England RL side for three years, showcasing his speed, agility and athleticism on the world stage.

Centre as a rugby league position translates fairly simply to union game, and the thought of Watkins at 13 outside fellow cross-codes star Kyle Eastmond at 12 is one of the utmost excitement.

The pros of Watkins are clear from an attacking point of view, however defensively he might need a small amount of work - something that he would find instantly upon an arrival in rugby union.

George Burgess

Brother of recent convert Sam, George too plies his trade in the NRL rather than the British equivalent and possesses similar physical capabilities to that of his brother. At 6' 4' and almost 19 stone, Burgess is a physical specimen that could wreak havoc on any rugby pitch, however, whether there is a rugby union position suited to him would remain to be seen.

That being said, in a recent interview with The Sydney Morning Herald, Burgess stated that he has a "never say never" attitude in regards to a switch of codes, so the potential for a move is more than a possibility.

Liam Sutcliffe

Perhaps more of a wildcard option, Sutcliffe is a young stand-off with a huge future in rugby league, however the question is: could he be tempted to alter that future and play rugby union?

For the young 20-year-old to make such a bold decision would be just that, however, the youngster has the attributes to make an impressive fly-half or inside centre in union with the right tuition and coaching. A confident, composed and talented player, Sutcliffe is a name to remember and keep note of.

For decades players have been choosing to 'jump ship' from rugby league to rugby union with numerous different motives, however now one pertinent question remains: Can and will Stuart Lancaster convince yet more of League's best prospects to switch codes and ply their trade in rugby union? The answer remains to be seen. The answer could have a huge impact on English rugby.

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