Former England rugby union international Luther Burrell made his debut in early July for rugby league outfit Warrington Wolves against London Broncos. Burrell is extremely unusual in making the code switch from rugby union to rugby league.
A fair few players have made the switch from the 13 man version of the game to the 15 man version in recent years. Examples range from now Head Coach of Ireland Andy Farrell, to 2003 England Rugby World Cup winner Jason Robinson, while New Zealander Sonny Bill Williams has the rare distinction of playing for his country in both league and union forms of the game and switching between the sports in his career twice.
Burrell isn’t unaware of the tendency for players to switch codes the other way either, as he found to his personal cost in 2015. Capped more than a dozen times for England, the centre was cruelly excluded from England’s squad for the 2015 Rugby World Cup by his long-time coach and then head coach of England, Stuart Lancaster, in favour of league convert Sam Burgess (below, playing for England at that World Cup). England were humiliatingly knocked out at the group stages of the tournament they were hosting, losing to both Australia and Wales at Twickenham, and the selection of Burgess was viewed as fatally flawed by most commentators.
Describing his exclusion in 2015 as ‘one of the most heartbreaking things in my life’ and feeling ‘let down’ by his boyhood mentor Lancaster, Burrell has decided at 31 to cap an otherwise highly successful rugby union professional career – which began at Leeds Tykes and ended with a seven season spell at Northampton Saints – to try to reach the top. Taking advantage of the fact that the Super League allows for salary cap exceptions for union convert signings, Warrington Wolves have signed Burrell for this season.
Burrell, who originally began playing rugby in league form before switching, has said he hopes he will be able to make enough of a success from the transition to inspire other players to follow him. Although admitting the fitness levels for rugby league are perhaps harder than for union, Burrell’s said: ‘If I can make this a positive move and make it look fun, then 100% other people will want to do it’.
It will be fascinating to see how Burrell fares and whether he kickstarts a trend. Switching codes between rugby union and league is almost certainly the most common professional sporting switch out there because the sports have their similarities. However, there are still major differences in style which make it a transition not all succeed in, as Sam Burgess can attest to. The convert to union slinked off back to league within a month of England’s exit from the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
Created by a set of northern rugby clubs in a hotel in Huddersfield in 1895 as they broke away to seek the professionalisation of rugby, rugby league is perhaps overall a faster sport than union. Each team has a “set” of six phases to score or gain a penalty to continue possession for another set, before the ball’s automatically turned over. Typically, after the fifth tackle and in the sixth phase, league players will throw caution to the wind or try speculative kicks to break through their opponent. Then there’s the line-outs and scrums – or complete lack of them, if you’re a union fan. In league, one need not worry about endless scrum resets slowing the game down, or players being dropped in the line-outs. Scrums are uncontested and no-one is picked up into the air for line-outs. The point system is different too (4 for a try in league, 5 in union and league only awards 2 points and 1 for penalties and drop goals respectively, compared to 3 in union), as are the number of players on the field at any one time and numerous other rules.
Given his prior knowledge of the game, it would be surprising if league rules proved challenging for Burrell (above) to get to grips with. Whether he can show the pace to make breaks, upper body strength to gain extra yards when being hauled to the ground, or the awareness of league phase play to seek quick breaks, is another matter. Having seen him in televised games and over a dozen years ago playing for the might of Sedgley Park RFC in English rugby union’s second division against my beloved Bedford Blues, I think Burrell certainly will have the upper body strength prized by league players to gain extra yards in the tackle. He also possesses a beguiling side-step turn of foot, which could work just as effectively in league as in union.
Overall, I rather suspect Burrell will take to professional rugby league like a duck to water. His move might trigger a regular procession of union players at the twilight of their careers to switch to league.