England and Wigan wing Josh Charnley has signed for Sale Sharks, with his prodigious scoring rate exciting fans, but will he be the last player to switch codes?
By Alex Shaw
Sale Sharks fans were certainly smiling today, as their club confirmed the signing of Wigan Warriors and England Rugby League winger Josh Charnley.
The 24-year-old will make the relatively short hop down the M6 in the autumn, following the conclusion of this year’s Super League competition.
The jet-heeled winger topped try-scoring charts in Super League in 2012 and 2013, as well as helping Wigan lift two Grand Finals and two Challenge Cups during his six-year stint with the storied club. Over that period, Charnley has scored 148 tries in 152 games for Wigan and a further eight tries in his seven appearances for England.
That prodigious scoring rate should have Sale’s fans licking their lips in anticipation, especially with league wing to union wing being one of the more straightforward transitions in the very mixed history of cross-code hops. With Kieran Longbottom and Juandre Kruger also recently announced as new signings for the 2016/17 season, Sale are bolstering ambitiously, despite the losses of both Danny Cipriani and Tommy Taylor to Wasps.
Charnley is renowned in league for his lethal finishing ability, something which was certainly apparent on Monday when he scored a hat-trick against Hull KR in Super League’s frenetic Easter schedule, and he should certainly complement Sale’s ever-improving back three, where Mike Haley, Nev Edwards and Will Addison have all impressed this season.
Sale director of rugby Steve Diamond has pulled off yet another transfer coup landing Charnley and despite struggling to match the budgets of the majority of the Aviva Premiership teams pushing for the playoff spots, he continues to keep Sale competitive and clear of the strife in the lower reaches of the table.
There will be an understandable reluctance to crown Charnley as the next big thing in union following the Sam Burgess debacle last year and that will work in the winger’s favour. With less pressure and expectations, Charnley can focus on performing for Sale and if he proves a success at that level, then doors should open, with Eddie Jones a noted fan of the attributes that league players bring to the mix.
There will, however, be big shoes to fill at Sale for Charnley, who will inevitably draw comparisons to Sale’s last signing from Wigan, one Jason Robinson. If Sale’s new signing can offer even half of what Robinson delivered, then Diamond will be lauded for having secured his signature.
The Wigan flyer brings power, pace and size to his new sport, as well as the clinical ability to finish in the smallest of spaces. There will be a significant period of adaptation for Charnley, but few can doubt that he will be one of the players to watch in the Premiership next season.
With those attributes in mind, below are five other Super League players whose skill sets would be a joy to watch in union.
Kallum Watkins, Leeds Rhinos
A fairly established England international, Kallum Watkins would be difficult to lure to union but he has all the physical skills required to excel, not to mention the versatility to play centre or wing in both codes. Something that will give union fans hope that they may see him in their sport one day is that back in 2014, Watkins admitted he was much more likely to head to union than the NRL . He is committed to Leeds for the foreseeable future, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t garnering attention from Premiership clubs, who would covet his exceptional footwork.
Sam Tomkins, Wigan Warriors
Sam Tomkins has long been linked with a switch to union and even played for the Barbarians against Australia in 2011. A diminutive yet silky smooth runner, Tomkins is the closest Wigan or England RL have come to Robinson since the latter pinned his colours to union’s mast. Having just moved back to Wigan following a spell in the NRL with the New Zealand Warriors, it’s unlikely you would see Tomkins in union anytime soon, but that won’t stop teams in need of a full-back wishing otherwise.
Adam Swift, St. Helens
With England RL’s full-back position currently occupied by a once-in-a-generation talent like Tomkins and superbly deputised by Zak Hardaker, Swift is a player who could be persuaded that international recognition is more achievable in a different code. He has moved to the wing for St. Helens and that’s another position he could play to a high level in union, with devastating footwork and pace helping single him out as one of the best talents in Super League.
Ben Currie, Warrington Wolves
A dual-international, Currie previously represented Ireland at the tender age of 19 and has since received a call up to the England RL team and was part of the squad which took on New Zealand last year. The 22-year-old second row would, like Sam Burgess, have the potential to be a very dynamic blindside flanker or number eight, particularly excelling with ball in hand. Again, like Burgess, he may lack the top end speed to be an effective weapon in the back line but as a long-term project in the pack, Currie would be an exciting union player.
Morgan Escaré, Catalan Dragons
French rugby union is in a fair old mess right now and whilst these league players would be luxuries for England rather than necessities, it could be argued that Guy Novès should be having a look around Super League and particularly the Catalan Dragons. Escaré is a skilful and ambitious full-back and plays with a verve that is certainly reminiscent of the French union teams of old. Novès shouldn’t sniff at Tony Gigot or Jordan Sigismeau, Escaré’s teammates at the Dragons, or St. Helens’ Théo Fages, either. Between Escaré and Fages (and a year or two of patience), France would potentially go a long way to bringing back their trademark flair at full-back and fly-half respectively.