In the wake of Sam Burgess returning home, there’s a lot of talk about the ‘failure’ of rugby league players to convert to rugby union. To some extent this is a back-handed compliment to league - after all, it assumes that league players are so skilled that they should be equally successful at union - but it also implies that union players find it easier to convert to league.
But that’s simply not the case. A quick look at the historical statistics for union players converting to league tells a much more complex story.
Of the 35 England rugby union internationals who switched to league between 1900 and 1995, just eight went on to play international rugby league for Great Britain, and five of those had played league as youths. That's 23%, or slightly less than one in four.
For a bigger sample, Robert Gate's wonderful Gone North lists all 148 Welsh union internationals who switched to league between 1895 and the book's publication in 1986. Of those 148 internationals, only 28 went on to play for the Great Britain rugby league team. That's just 19%, or slightly less than one in five. Sure, everyone's heard of Lewis Jones and Jonathan Davies, but who remembers Stuart Evans or Dai Young, two Welsh union greats who were utterly out of their depths in league?
To put it bluntly, less than one in four rugby union players who switched codes reached the same heights in league as they did in union.
The moral of the story is simple. League and union are separate and distinct sports. You might be good at one, you might be good at the other - but you’re very lucky if you are good at both.