Luther Burrell: failed Rugby League stint shows difficulty in crossing codes

Luther Burrell and his year-long spell in rugby league has once again underlined the difficulty in crossing codes. He isn’t the first, and nor will he be the last to struggle.

After joining Warrington Wolves on a 30-month contract, Burrell featured just eight times as he struggled to find a way into a strong Wolves team. He last featured in late February, prior to the coronavirus lockdown.

Burrell’s failed stint could largely be attributed to the lack of rugby league the former Northampton Saint has actually played. Burrell last played league well over a decade ago, and the need to get his conditioning up to Super League standard within weeks of finishing a union season was ‘almost impossible’.

Despite this apparent failure, rugby league does seemingly have a good track of recruiting union players historically. From Jim Sullivan to Billy Boston, Scott Gibbs, Jonathan Davies, Martin Offiah, David Watkins, Clive Sullivan, John Gallagher, and many, many others made legends of themselves in the 13 man code.

Yet however, not everyone had the same failed transition; as Burrell has shown.

Luther Burrell unsuccessful in transition from Union to League

Does this leave the question as to why players struggle after switching codes? Which is harder; union to league, or league to union?

The transition from league to union has appeared significantly harder for players. Despite a number of success stories from Sonny Bill Williams to Jason Robinson, there has also been a number of players that have struggled; like Sam Burgess, Josh Charnley, and Benji Marshall, to name a few.

Adapting from union to league demands an entirely different technical approach. For example, in league players are typically used to tackling and trying to slow opponents down as much as possible at the play-the-ball. They have a referees count to roll into a dummy-half position, as the attacker stands to play-the-ball. That is, rather than there being more of a ‘contest for possession’ at the ruck, where it is in rugby union.

While perhaps the most significant thing in the faster modern game is the fitness and conditioning that league players need to be at. Unlike in union where there are regular stoppages due to lineouts, more penalty kicks, and scrums, rugby league is virtually a non-stop action, from start to finish.

Lastly the game is positionally different too.

Tight five forwards as an example rarely successfully convert from league to union. As height is not used in gaining possession from a lineout [as there are none].

Athletic types are more engineered to run directly into one another, so a lock can find the confrontation hard to adapt to.

Brad Thorn (see image left) being an obvious exception although, he had played league initially. 

The same logic applied to Burrell. A tall centre in rugby union, but the former-England player couldn’t identify his best position in league; whether it was the second-row, or at centre [left or right].

It appears those who grew up with the sport, and who had not had the exposure to rugby, were more suited and Burrell could not fit in as naturally as when a Sonny-Bill returned to league.

Younger cross-code players tend to fare better

A usual exception to the rule involves young cross-code stars. Australia’s NRL relishes the opportunity to scour the rugby union to find hidden gems. And when utilized, those players tend to excel better than a young league to union convert.

Angus Crichton (see below image), Bailey Simonsson, Leo Thompson, Kalyn Ponga, Cameron Murray, Tepai Moeroa, Taane Milne, Connor Watson, Luke Keary, Victor Radley, and even more recently one of union’s prized youngsters Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow all opted to play league instead.

Even one of rugby league’s biggest legends in Cooper Cronk was originally a union product, but abdicated to the 13-man code and found greater success with the Melbourne Storm and the Queensland Maroons.

Nevertheless, all of those players named above managed to transition between two different codes and seemingly with relative ease.

Nevertheless, all of those players named above managed to transition between two different codes and seemingly with relative ease. Cronk became a global phenomenon before retiring after last season, Watson was signed to a big-money contract by the Newcastle Knights and Angus Crichton is one of the NRL’s biggest current stars.

The difference between those players and Burrell is that they all switched to league at a young age. Giving them ample time to adjust to the adopted game.

While an honest assessment, Luther Burrell won’t be the last cross-code convert to struggle. Especially as limited places in professional rugby make some players see league as another sporting option worth exploring.


Luther Burrell has signed a two-year contract back in rugby union, for the Newcastle Falcons.


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