It’s rugby, Jim, but not as we know it…

Former Wigan winger Josh Charnley is expected to make his rugby union debut from the bench this Friday in Sale’s Anglo-Welsh Cup game against Wasps. In the summer, I named Charnley as one of the players I was most looking forward to seeing in the Premiership this season, with good reason. He finished his Wigan career with a whopping 165 tries in 176 appearances, including one in this year’s Super League Grand Final, so is clearly a player who knows his way to the try-line. Having only started his union training a couple of weeks ago, expectations should be low initially, but I am sure if given the chance he could go on to emulate former Wigan-to-Sale convert and 2003 World Cup winner Jason Robinson.

However, for every Jason Robinson or Sonny Bill Williams, there will be plenty of players who try to make the switch with much more limited success. And this is not just limited to players converting from league. Though league and union share many of the same basic skills and ideas – passing backwards, tackling, kicking and scoring tries – they are also two very different sports. Probably the highest profile switch in recent years was that of Sam Burgess. A superstar in league, his time in union was anything but easy, and after a poor World Cup, he left his contract with Bath early and returned to NRL’s South Sydney Rabbitohs. But more on Slammin’ Sam later…

Below are my thoughts on the areas that could cause issue for a player switching codes either way. This is something I really started thinking about while watching the Mitsubishi Hybrid Cup match at Kingsholm recently. I’m still somewhat of a league rookie, so if you disagree with any of my thoughts or think I missed something, feel free to comment at the end.

 

Finding the right position

I fully expect Charnley to play wing for Sale, just like he did at Wigan. When coming to a new sport and a new environment, any familiarity will help a transition. Not all code-switchers will be able to continue playing the same position however, partially down to there being a difference in the number of players on the pitch, but also due to the difference in requirements for the same position in the different codes. In rugby league, Sam Burgess is predominantly a prop and Sonny Bill Williams a second row. These positions clearly wouldn’t be right for them in union, due to the physical demands on the tight five in the set piece. Williams has primarily played in the centre in union, using his power and pace to cause a problem in midfield and draw in defenders, before letting fly with a killer offload to put a teammate clean through. Even before his move to Bath was confirmed, Burgess was seen as being England’s very own Sonny Bill, so Bath tried to play him at centre but eventually moved him to flanker, where he looked much better and more comfortable. Unfortunately, Stuart Lancaster and the England coaching staff disagreed, taking him to the World Cup as a centre ahead of much more established players.

Getting used to how to play your position in a new game is a big part of the transition, so a lack in consistency of where you’re playing will not be at all helpful, especially when the positions are as different as flanker and centre in union.

Skills to pay the bills

As alluded to above, there are different skill requirements between the two rugby codes. The most obvious one at first glance is the absence of rucking and mauling in league. Though the basic idea of rucking can be picked up relatively quick – come in lower and harder than the opposition – it takes time and practice to learn to ruck effectively, safely and without giving away penalties. Players who look to go into the pack when switching to union also need to learn how to scrummage correctly and also how to perform an effective line-out. The big skill that comes to mind in league is the ability once tackled to get quickly back to feet and play the ball, providing quick ball to hopefully catch the defence out before they have had time to reorganise. The limit of 6 completed tackles per set in league also increases the usefulness of the offload. As such, players often run into contact with the ball in just one hand, something that is often discouraged in union. Many league tackles could be considered a ‘man and ball’ tackle – taking a ball carrier around the torso to stop him being able to get an arm free and offload – whereas union generally teaches the first tackler to take the ball carrier’s legs and leave the ball for the next man in.

While these skills are relatively easy to learn, it will take a considerable amount of practice to master these skills to the same degree as someone who has been doing it their entire career. I can’t imagine that we will ever have many players convert from league into the front row due to just how specialised those positions are. In the past I couldn’t have imagined many players converting to the second row,Brad Thorn being an exception to the rule, however with the emergence of a number of second row/back row hybrids, there is possibly more chance of a convert playing this position than before.

Fitness

I could go on for hours about how much I hate the scrum in modern rugby union. What should be a quick way to restart the game while tying in the forwards has become a 5 minute ordeal of reset scrums before a penalty that 8 times out of 10 should probably have gone the other way. This, combined with a high number of line-outs, heavily limits the time that the ball is in play. It is also much easier to produce ‘slow’ ball at a union breakdown that at a play the ball in league.

League is a game with far fewer stoppages, so players have less of a chance to catch their breath and as such need to have higher aerobic fitness levels. Union has definitely improved in this area over the years, to the point that even props are starting to look like athletes rather than slabs of meat, however I still feel that the average fitness levels in union would be lower than in league. With fewer players on the pitch, a lack of fitness could have devastating effects for a team trying to defend.

I feel like it may take a union player longer to adapt to the fitness requirements of league than the other way round, and as such a convert given their chance too soon may be found to be a weak link by the opposition.

Tactical differences

One of my big thoughts watching the Gloucester Legends team in the 2nd half of the Hybrid Cup was how much they looked like a team of union players trying to play league. That is not meant to sound at all like an insult as that is exactly what they are. The differences in rules requires a completely different set of tactics.

Union tactics generally go along the lines of kick for territory,taking advantage of a poor opposition kick and then holding onto the ball for multiple phases in and around the 22 until the chance comes to manufacture a scoring chance or a chance to kick at goal. It’s not uncommon for a team to hold possession for around 20+ phases. Driving mauls and pushover 5m scrums are also frequently used tactics.

League’s limit of 6 tackles per set leads to tactics that allow maximum territory gain over 5 tackles before either kicking downfield to pin the opposition deep in their own territory or looking for the grubber/high kick to allow a chasing player to compete and try to score a try. Every phase counts and positive yardage is a must. Scrums are over almost before they begin.

In general, league appears to do a better job of encouraging players to come onto the ball from deep to improve their momentum going into contact, and also uses dummy runners to manipulate the defensive line much more effectively. A convert playing in an influential position would have to put in a lot of effort to understand the game well enough to control the game while on the pitch.

 

All of these are possible to navigate if given the time. The big problem comes when a code-switcher is expected to play at a high level straight away. Sam Burgess was one of the top names in league when he chose to up sticks from Australia and return to England to play union for Bath. Even before he was on the plane, the talk was of him being fast-tracked into the England squad for the World Cup. Luckily at Bath he had a great set of players to learn from, including being taught the intricacies of the breakdown from one of the best flankers in the world, Francois Louw. After a delayed debut courtesy of an injury picked up in the NRL Grand Final he finally made his debut in late November, less than a year before the World Cup. Initially he was played as a 12, including a forgettable performance for the England Saxons in January. However he was soon moved to openside flanker where he looked much more comfortable and arguably earned his place in the starting lineup ahead of high quality competition like Carl Fearns. He was even one of Bath’s better players when they were overpowered in the Premiership Final by Saracens. In the buildup to the World Cup squad selection, it was made clear that the England coaches considered there to already be enough back row options, so Burgess would only be considered as a centre. Despite the availability of established centres such as Luther Burrell and Kyle Eastmond – the man in possession of the 12 shirt at Bath – Burgess was picked as 1 of 4 centres, alongside Henry Slade who was also lacking international experience. Though he performed admirably when given the chance, it was clear that the coaching staff didn’t know how to use Burgess effectively and they were humiliated by crashing out at the group stage of their home World Cup. Though the coaches eventually lost their job, Burgess was made somewhat of a scapegoat and understandably chose to return to the Rabbitohs soon after.

It shows how dangerous expectations can be when a player is considered a failure when within a span of less than a year they have learned a new game, made their professional debut, become a regular starter at club level, played in a final and been capped internationally. Unfortunately too much was expected in too short a time and without the right people in place to get the best out of him. I was extremely disappointed that he chose to give up on union so quickly, as I feel that given time he could have easily hit the heights of Robinson and Williams, but I do understand his reasoning.

Hopefully everyone has learned lessons from this sorry saga, which can now be used to give Josh Charnley every chance to find his feet and thrive at Sale and, possibly, in the future with England.

 

Good luck Josh! Except when you play against Gloucester, please go easy on us!

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