Joel Tomkins return shows the peril of the code swap

The days of successfully jumping codes of rugby are over. While the two sports may superficially resemble each other to an outside eye, they have never been more different.

Rugby league is harder, faster and tougher than union. The sheer speed and intensity of the collisions, especially the top level, is something that would terrify most rugby union players. As would, sadly these days it seems, the basic skill levels required.

Andy Powell, albeit maybe not the player many Wigan fans would have picked to join them from Welsh rugby union, showed that rugby union forwards are simply not fit or hard enough for league any more.

Powell was known as a hard-running bully of a backrow forward in the 15-man code, a British Lion no less. In our game, he looked like a fat old man.

The days when the likes of Paul Moriarty or Jim Mills could come out of Welsh rugby union and almost immediately start dishing it out to league players are long, long gone.

Union no longer has the intensity or speed to adequately prepare players for our game. Union players simply do not tackle, pass or run enough to develop the skills required for league, and it showed big time in Powell’s case.

Southern hemisphere players do have a better range of skills than their northern hemisphere counterparts, but there are still not many who could last long enough to make a real impact in league.

As far as going to union from our game, who has really done well over the last decade? Some second-rate Kiwis managed to bag England caps, like Shontayne Hape, but has anyone won hatfuls of England caps and become a legend? No, they haven’t, and even if they had, union writers like Stephen Jones would never accept them anyway.

Kyle Eastmond has used his potentially world class talent to turn himself from possibly one of England RL’s greatest halfbacks, and a successor to Sean Long at Saints, into a slightly-better-than-average rugby union centre. He is on the fringes of the England squad in the 15-man code, no more, and a big chunk of his career has gone now, never to to return.

Only absolute sporting freaks like Sonny Bill Williams seem to be able to excel, and it took a large segment of his carefully managed career to adjust to the other code. The Kiwi superstar has also suggested, though, that the NRL is too hard on his body for a long stay, and he wil be returning to the other code soon, as its more gentle rhythms allow for a longer time as a professional athlete.

Our sport is looked down on by union types, who see our players as one-dimensional thugs, and can never really accept them, however good they might become. Some banter in an appallingly fake Northern accent and a metaphorical pat on the head from the likes of Stuart Barnes is all you can really expect as begrudging recognition of your talents.

Sam Burgess needs to hit the ground running when he moves to Bath RUFC. Otherwise he will start to go backwards, and quickly. It will be interesting to see how much damage union has done to Joel Tomkins’ fitness, pace and strength.

The problem for the likes of Burgess is that they are far too skilful to be union forwards, but not quick enough to be union backs. I can’t see Sam being happy with three touches of the ball a game, and spending the rest rucking, mauling and scrummaging, however many solicitors, stockbrokers and students turn up to watch him from the Twickenham stands.

So my advice to any owners who are contemplating converts from the other code – don’t bother. They won’t be able to handle it, and you’ll be throwing good money after bad.

And for players from league wanting some of the rah-rahs’ ‘global stardom’ – forget it. They’ll only tolerate you, never admire you, and their ‘global brand’ is just not worth the hassle of adjusting that crossing codes now entails.

Stay in rugby league, excel and estblish a legacy here instead. God knows, we need it. And the riches and glory of the NRL could be yours too.

Welcome home Joel, it’s lovely to have you back.

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