Wilson: Why wouldn't you want best athletes?

JEFF WILSON
Last updated 05:00 23/02/2014
Sonny Bill Williams
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SUCCESS: Sonny Bill Williams is rugby union's most famous convert.

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OPINION: I'm a rugby guy through and through, but I also strongly believe there's a pathway for the best league players to switch codes, and bring their special skills to our game.

If you listen to some around rugby, particularly the more traditional types, you would think it was a bad thing having the likes of Israel Folau, Benji Marshall and Sam Burgess align with rugby, and now - as revealed in these pages today - new Warriors recruit Sam Tomkins declaring his interest in following in their bootsteps.

I heartily disagree. There's no downside for rugby, and a lot of positives as the league "recruits" bring a rich new tapestry to our game.

What it's doing is bringing better athletes into our sport, with different skillsets. It makes the game exciting, it transfers some things across from league and, if anything, it strengthens rugby at league's expense.

I'm all in favour of having the best athletes out there, and in recent years there can be no doubting the impact high-profile code-changers like Folau and Sonny Bill Williams have had.

One thing league players bring is an ability to handle physicality and this is very important in the modern game.

I can't see why we wouldn't welcome that size, power and athleticism with open arms. If it brings the world a little closer together because of it, if Australia and England get a little closer, then doesn't that just make for more exciting test matches?

I can't help think there's still a resentment in rugby from the era when the likes of John Gallagher, Craig Innes, Matthew Ridge, Marc Ellis and John Timu all went to league off established All Black careers.

There's been an attitude in rugby that we can produce our own, so why go searching elsewhere? It's almost like, "you may have taken our talent in the old days but we don't need what you've got now".

But this is the age of professional sports competing for the best athletes, and no one should be off the table. With such a strong synergy between the codes, rugby would be mad not to look at those coming through the league system.

An increasing number of high-profile league players now see rugby as a viable option. That says a lot about the opportunities union now offers, as well as the money now in the code.

There are World Cups and Olympic gold medals to play for, and you get to travel the world. This holds appeal for league players whose game lacks a significant international platform.

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Plus, look at the type of player coming across. Typically they're attacking geniuses, playmakers and offloaders, not necessarily workhorses.

Brad Thorn was the exception to that rule, but even he would probably admit he had limitations in rugby. Luckily his work ethic and physical impact more than made up for those weaknesses.

There are aspects of rugby that league players find difficult to pick up. Marshall has made that clear already and even Folau, as successful as he's been, finds aspects of his new code a mystery.

Even Williams, with all his talent, found it difficult to translate the dominance he had with the Chiefs into the test arena.

The signing of Burgess by English rugby is interesting, and undoubtedly a gamble. But with Andy Farrell on the coaching staff, they'll back themselves to help him through that transition.

What they see in Burgess is a talented footballer and athlete, first and foremost. Let's not forget they didn't do a bad job converting Jason Robinson into a very handy rugby player.

Marshall's transition hasn't been smooth so far, but that's understandable given he's in the toughest position to learn as an apprentice. He'll get better and it's just going to take time. This is not a short-term investment by the Blues.

Tompins' interest in rugby might surprise some, but we saw in the Nines his playmaking ability. His challenge, like Marshall's, would be adapting to the less structured nature of rugby and the greater influence the No 10 has on the game.

As Dylan once warbled, "The times they are a-changin'." Old school resistance to league from diehards who push back on instinct doesn't make sense. In modern professional sport loyalty is an outmoded concept.

- Sunday Star Times

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