Canberra Raiders' Peter Mulholland explains what is drawing NRL scouts to union players
What is attracting rugby league clubs to union stars?
“I’ll try to get a few union kids every year,” explains Peter Mulholland, recruitment manager at the NRL’s Canberra Raiders and a veteran of 32 years in league. “We have six in the U20s now and we’ve got Bailey Simonsson, who played for New Zealand Sevens – though he grew up with a league background.
“The best (union players) to look at are flankers and No 8s. It’s not really for tight fives, while with nines you’re probably looking at playing hooker in league and that’s a position you are born to play, in my opinion. And tens, we will always look out for…”
Code hopping in rugby is nothing new. We saw plenty of traffic heading towards league in the Nineties, before union turned pro. But as we career into 2020, there is a sense of déjà vu in some quarters.
At the start of November it was announced that Sonny Bill Williams – a veteran of the NRL and a two-time Rugby World Cup winner with the All Blacks – was heading into Super League for the first time, at 34, jumping into the unknown with Toronto Wolfpack. In recent weeks the same club have been linked with a swoop for England and Leicester’s Manu Tuilagi.
While there may be publicity-related imperatives for such moves, according to Mulholland there are potentially more fruitful crossover prospects further down union’s developmental ladder.
“I tend to look at players a bit younger,” the veteran tells Rugby World.
“We will scout rugby union schools in New Zealand – often good league players there will be taken in by the big union schools after 15, 16. Union is dying in Australia because of the way it’s run, the structures… I would say the New Zealand schoolboy system for rugby union is the best in the world for any sport.
“There’s a clear pathway from schools to Mitre 10 to Super Rugby. With talent there’s such a funnel to a finer point that some kids fall out of it, but all the best kids go through it.”
Mulholland gives the example of Leo Thompson, who came from the youth systems in Wellington to try his hand at league with the Raiders. But the biggest issue league scouts may face in other geographical areas is assessing players with a lack of general understanding of league or the age profile of some of the players when they try their hand. Others may be in demand but are unattainable.
Despite rumours that some NRL teams were weighing up offers for former Parrammata Eels player Semi Radradra, news broke that the Fijian would be staying in union as he signed a three-year deal with Bristol Bears. Mulholland reveals that when he was with the Newcastle Knights, Radradra was offered to the side but the Pacific Islander was out of their price bracket.
There are other avenues to look at too. Mulholland explains: “We watch the HSBC sevens quite closely. The space they get is not quite the same as we get in league – if it was nines it would have more in common. But I will bring guys up to the team, like former Fiji sevens captain Watisoni Votu, who we took to Newcastle Knights (for a trial) but was 28 when we got him.
“A lot is about knowing league.
“I’m having a lot of luck with Fijian kids at the moment. Twenty years ago you couldn’t get near them on the islands, because the national sport is union. But because they’ve changed the season, now you see great athletes, their English is great, and they can play both of the sports.”
The battle for talented youngsters will go on. It made headlines as the New Zealand Rugby Union got caught in a tug of war with the NZ Warriors league franchise for the signature of teenage sensation Etene Nanai-Seturo, while he was still at Saint Kentigern College. As Mulholland says, there is certainly competition in the youth market. There are interests from all over the rugby globe, in union and league, from Australia to Sri Lanka.
And then there is the marquee signing market, which sees Sonny Bill and others come back into the frame. What is the motivation there, to sign the older heads from union?
Rugby league writer John Davidson says: “Rugby league clubs targeting top rugby union players is nothing new – they have been doing it for decades. From Jim Sullivan to Billy Boston, Scott Gibbs, Jonathan Davies, Martin Offiah, David Watkins, Clive Sullivan, John Gallagher and many, many others. In the past they did it for money, opportunity, a challenge, for fame and fortune. When rugby union was amateur, rugby league was a big lure.
“But that has all changed since 1995 and today the riches available to players are much greater in the 15-man code. More league players leave to go to union for the greater salaries and the chance to play around the world. But at the moment England rugby league is struggling for crowds and media attention, so the need to sign big names from union – Williams, Luther Burrell, potentially Tuilagi – is a massive one and a smart ploy. Union is the more popular code so these stars bring excitement, interest and marketing appeal, as well as their on-field talents.
“Already the wider interest is Sonny Bill has been impressive, and if it is leveraged properly it could become a turning point. Warrington have signed Burrell and Leeds have been linked with George Ford. Owen Farrell has a strong Wigan connection and grew up in the town. It wouldn’t surprise to see him move at some point in his career before he retires. If Sonny Bill is a success, I expect more rugby league clubs to follow suit.”
The answer to whether the Toronto experiment is a success or an expensive blunder will unfold over time. Yet, as scouts in the NRL and Super League consider other targets from the youth games in both hemispheres, the question of who will be the next name to hop codes may be far more interesting.
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