When rugby league in Australia split from rugby union in 1908, it took with it some of union’s greatest players, including ten union Test players who then turned out in Tests for the Kangaroos in the first year.
The most famous of these was, of course, Dally Messenger, who despite a surprisingly brief playing career, was pivotal in getting the game of rugby league up and running in Australia. These ten players became the first of Australia’s dual rugby internationals i.e. players who represented Australia in both league and union.
Google lists a total of 48 players who have now achieved this feat, although closer inspection reveals that Trevor Allan should be excluded, as he represented “Other Nationalities” in league Tests rather than Australia.
So 47 it is. There are some famous names on this list, including Rex Mossop, Arthur Summons, Dick Thornett, Mike Cleary, Michael O’Connor and Ricky Stuart.
This article doesn’t deal with former Kangaroos like Brad Thorn and Craig Gower, who went on to represent New Zealand and Italy in rugby union.
Only 16 players have reached Australian dual international status since 1960, and of these only two have been forwards, the legendary Ray Price, and the less well known Scott Gourley, who just makes the list courtesy of his one game for the Kangaroos against Papua New Guinea.
Interestingly, the first 40 dual internationals came from union to league, while the last seven have made the transition the other way, from league to union. These seven players were Andrew Walker, Wendell Sailor, Matt Rogers, Lote Tuqiri, Timana Tahu, Israel Folau and Karmichael Hunt, who was the last dual international in 2017.
In the early days the traffic from union to league, and the resultant dual international status, was primarily driven by the desire to be paid for playing football. Not everyone could afford to devote their time and energy for the scarce rewards of the amateur game.
With the end of “shamateurism”, and the advent of Super Rugby, this financial incentive to switch codes ended for union players, who could not only now command lucrative playing contracts in union, but also had increasing playing opportunities across the world, in places like South Africa, France, South America and Japan.
League and union were also far more similar games back then e.g. with contested scrums, and players in both codes had comparable body shapes, which made transition from one sport to the other relatively easy.
These days, roles in both league and union are far more specialised, and unique to their code, particularly in the forwards. For example, the league’s best hooker, Cameron Smith, would be lucky to survive one game of union; and union second rower Rob Simmons would struggle with the requirements of playing an edge forward role for 80 minutes in league.
Body shapes too are different, again particularly in the forwards. Union second rowers are all approaching two metres tall, while this is now apparently the desired height for a league winger, and league front rowers are now some 20Kg lighter than their union counterparts, as they no longer need to push in, or even enter, a scrum.
And then there’s the game itself, with often vastly different skill sets required by players in each code playing in nominally the same position.
For example, a union hooker is required to win possession in the scrum and take a lot of physical punishment in the rucks and mauls, while the relatively lightweight league hookers like Harry Grant and Damien Cook need the passing game of a union half back and the ability to run the ball. For them, winning the ball in the scrum is a distant memory.
So will there ever be another Australian dual international, and if so, who is likely?
Given the one way traffic from league to union this century, at least at the international player level, it’s hard to envisage a scenario where an Australian union international would move to league, and then be successful enough to make the Kangaroo team.
This is particularly the case given the financial rewards now available in union at the elite level, and the lucrative club rugby contracts available in places like France and Japan, for international players on the downward slide and heading to retirement.
It is more likely that the trend of the last 20 years continues, and league internationals transition to union, and make the grade as Wallabies. Once making it to the top in league in Australia, there aren’t many more mountains to climb, and the downhill slide via say English Super League is not everyone’s cup of tea, and not particularly financially rewarding.
If an attractive rugby contract was on offer, and say a Rugby World Cup was just around the corner, a player could be tempted, particularly if they were relatively young and, while in the past having been selected as a Kangaroo, were now only considered a fringe selection forward candidate going forward.
For example, Valentine Holmes, a talented outside back who is only 25 years of age, has represented Australia on 13 occasions, but may struggle to be selected for Australia in the future. You couldn’t rule out a player like him switching to rugby and going on to represent the Wallabies.
But not all league players would make suitable union converts. For the reasons discussed above, most would neither have the body shape nor the experience and specialist skills to be successful in union. The most likely successful converts, using recent history as a guide, would either be league outside backs or edge forwards, who play a similar role to each other.
League wingers, fullbacks and centres have a good track record of making the grade in union, and the recent success of forwards from other countries like Sam Burgess, Ben Teo and Sonny Bill Williams, in transitioning from league backrowers to union centres, may provide opportunities for some forwards. I can’t see any candidates making it from any other position.
It’s been three years since the last dual international was capped, and four years and five years respectively before that for Israel Folau and Timana Tahu to join the exclusive club. At this rate we shouldn’t expect the list to grow too quickly, but I’m sure we haven’t seen the last Kangaroo morph into a Wallaby.