Hits and misses: How union stars have mixed success in making rugby code hope to league

In the days when rugby union was amateur, code switches to rugby league were the norm but for the last 30 years it has been mostly one-way traffic in the other direction. 

Here are some of the players to ditch the 15-player game for league after Wallabies winger Mark Nawaqanitawase sealed a two-year deal to join the NRL’s Sydney Roosters.

Garrick Morgan

The last Wallaby to walk out on union for league, Morgan joined the South Queensland Crushers for the 1995 season but that lasted just two games. The forward soon returned to union with the Queensland Reds and won caps for the Wallabies either side of his stint in league. 

John Kirwan

A member of the inaugural Warriors side in 1995, Kirwan had been a star of an all-conquering All Blacks side which won the 1987 Rugby World Cup. The winger had a steady if unspectacular time in the Warriors’ first two seasons before finishing his career in Japanese rugby. 

Gareth Thomas

Thomas was a 100-cap veteran and an ornament of the Welsh rugby union team throughout the 2000s. He made his league bow aged 35 in the Super League in 2010 and went on to represent Wales in league as a centre too but by then his best days were well behind him. 

 Luther Burrell

Grew up in the league hotbed of Huddersfield but made strides in union as a centre where he won 15 caps for England. Upset by missing out on the 2015 Rugby World Cup squad for Sam Burgess, Burrell had a brief and uneventful eight-game stint with Warrington in the Super League. 

Will Warbrick

A former New Zealand Sevens player, Olympic silver medallist Warbrick made the move to the Melbourne Storm at the start of 2022. While initially beginning in the Queensland Cup, the winger had a breakout season in 2023 scoring 17 tries in 25 NRL games. 

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