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Union winning battle against league

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The NRL stars who could strengthen union's ongoing battle with rugby league

There has been no shortage of discussion about players switching back and forth between rugby union and league since the conclusion of the World Cup last month.

Sonny Bill Williams’ unprecedented mega-million dollar move from the All Blacks to the Toronto Wolfpack can largely be thanked for that, but there has been a succession of code-hopping storylines that have since followed suit.

Many expected former Parramatta Eels star Semi Radradra to move back to the NRL from French side Bordeaux following his compelling display at the World Cup in Japan, where he was an integral figure for Fiji in all four of their fixtures.

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Rumours of homesickness and poor weather fuelled those reports, which inevitably proved to be false after the 27-year-old signed with English club Bristol last week in a major coup for Pat Lam’s squad.

Elsewhere, Canberra Raiders and Kiwis wing Jordan Rapana will take a sabbatical in Japan’s Top League with the Panasonic Wild Knights before returning to the Australian capital next year, while New Zealand and Tonga representative Solomone Kata has joined the Brumbies for three years in a cross-code move first reported by RugbyPass in June.

Most recently, the Queensland Reds yesterday announced the arrival of Melbourne Storm flyer Suliasi Vunivalu on a two-year deal from 2021, and he looms as a quality long-term prospect for either Fiji or the Wallabies.

The same can’t be said for unwanted Sydney Roosters centre Latrell Mitchell.

The 22-year-old has garnered immense success since his first-grade debut in 2016, playing a key role in the Roosters’ back-to-back NRL titles in 2018 and 2019, which spurred four State of Origin appearances for New South Wales and four tests for the Kangaroos.

However, he was dropped from the Blues’ squad ahead of their final series-deciding State of Origin clash against Queensland earlier this year, reportedly amid concerns regarding his attitude and focus.

It seems those pitfalls have now left his career in league hanging in the balance.

After rejecting an $800,000 contract extension offer from Sydney, which would have made him the highest-paid centre in rugby league, Mitchell has had an offer from the Wests Tigers withdrawn, and chances of a reported move to join Williams in Canada with the Wolfpack appear slim.

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The North Queensland Cowboys remain interested in Mitchell’s services, but have ruled out welcoming him to Townsville next year after acquiring NFL reject Valentine Holmes on a big-money deal from the New York Jets.

With Mitchell’s future playing options growing thinner throughout the NRL, an enquiry was made last week to Rugby Australia by his representatives to see whether he would be courted by rugby union officials as a prospective Wallaby.

Mitchell’s immense talents as a strong ball-carrier, crafty distributor, sharp-shooting goal kicker and try-scoring machine would make him a valued asset for the Wallabies, but other priorities – including Dave Rennie’s imminent arrival in Australia, contract negotiations with headline players and Israel Folau’s $14 million legal battle – have eliminated hopes of a move to rugby union for the time being, according to The Daily Telegraph.

Given his contractual circumstances, a move to the XV-man code seems as though it would have been born out of desperation rather than a legitimate desire to play rugby union on Mitchell’s behalf.

Furthermore, when the potential switch was first reported, questions were raised by fans as to whether bringing someone into the struggling Wallabies with issues surrounding his attitude would be the right move for the World Cup quarter-finalists.

In more recent revelations, it appears that the Gold Coast Titans have emerged as unlikely favourites to capture Mitchell’s signature ahead of the forthcoming season, but his attempted shift to rugby union is indicative of an ascendency from the code in the ever-present power struggle between against league.

Player movements from league to union over past few weeks attests to that, but there remains a number of individuals in the NRL with a background in XVs who could still yet make the crossover from the 13-man game.

None of those players are more prominent than Newcastle Knights fullback Kalyn Ponga.

With three State of Origin caps to his name, the Queensland star is one of the hottest properties in the NRL, and was a frontrunner to claim the prestigious Dally M Medal last year as the league’s most valuable player until injury struck late in the season.

Renowned for his lightning agility and wicked playmaking ability, Ponga turned down six professional clubs from three sporting codes to sign with the Cowboys as a 15-year-old in 2013.

His acquisition came at a time when he was the key figure in an all-conquering Anglican Church Grammar School 1st XV, and his exploits in rugby union haven’t been forgotten while he’s forged a successful league career with North Queensland and Newcastle.

The Daily Telegraph reported in June that former Wallabies head coach Michael Cheika rang Ponga late last year in an attempt to persuade the 21-year-old away from the NRL to represent the Wallabies.

However, a move to rugby union would almost certainly end in All Blacks honours, as Ponga, who grew up in Palmerston North for five years as a child and is of Maori heritage, told TVNZ last year of his desire to represent the three-time world champions.

“If I was to go back to rugby union, I probably would strive for that black jumper. It’s the pinnacle,” he said.

“They are the best sporting organisation in the world, stats have showed that, and the way they hold themselves, their values and their morals, just the little things they do make them that step above everyone else, so to put that jersey on would be pretty special.

“I’ve got three years with my contract at the Knights, and I’ve got some things I want to achieve in that time, and I don’t know what’s going to happen at the end of that, but I’ve always wanted to be the best, so we’ll have to wait and see.”

Sydney Roosters utility back Joseph Manu has expressed the same aspirations about representing New Zealand in rugby union.

The 23-year-old Tokoroa native has played five times for the Kiwis, and has shared two NRL titles with Mitchell since joining the Roosters four years ago, but didn’t hide his ambitions of playing for the All Blacks during an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald in September.

“Ever since I was young I wanted to be an All Black. I’m still a big fan of them,” Manu, whose childhood idols were All Blacks centurions Dan Carter and Mils Muliaina, said.

“Especially when it comes to World Cups. It’s a pretty big occasion for pretty much all New Zealanders.

“I love [watching] at the moment but one day I would love to play for them.”

While he admitted that he didn’t want to leave Sydney for the time being, the option to return to rugby union could arise once his Roosters contract runs out at the end of next season.

Other cross-code candidates include former Wellington College 1st XV sensation Nelson Asofa-Solomona, who was widely regarded as one of the most promising schoolboys in New Zealand in 2012.

The former No. 8 committed his services to the Storm after signing with the club as a 15-year-old, but the Hurricanes have maintained interest in the 2m, 115kg rugby league prop.

Stuff reported in 2016 that the Wellington-based franchise were hunting the 23-year-old’s signature, but he is tied down with Melbourne until the end of 2023, meaning any potential move to Super Rugby is still a number of years away.

It’s a similar situation for Roosters second rower Angus Crichton, who last year admitted that representing the Wallabies at the 2023 World Cup in France was a goal of his, but still has two more seasons on his three-year contract to honour.

“Yeah of course [it’s something I’m considering],” the former Scots College 1st XV star, who represented New South Wales and Australian Schoolboys in 2013 and 2014, told the Hello Sport podcast.

“I’ve signed with the Chooks for 2019/20/21, so obviously you think about these sort of things.

“You never want to sign a 10-year deal cause you never know what the game is going to do, you never know what you’re going to do as a player. What you can achieve elsewhere.”

Former New Zealand Schools fullback Roger Tuivasa-Sheck was another who changed allegiance to rugby league out of high school, and was reported by RNZ to have signed with the Blues ahead of the 2019 Super Rugby season in what would have been a monumental purchase by the embattled Auckland franchise.

However, the move never came to fruition, and the 2018 Dally M Medal winner is signed on with the Warriors through until 2022, effectively banishing any chance of a highly-anticipated move back to union.

A more realistic proposition could be that of Tuivasa-Sheck’s 21-year-old teammate Isaiah Papali’i.

The former openside flanker spearheaded Mount Albert Grammar’s National First XV Championship title-winning run in 2016, and was named schoolboy player of the year.

Despite his credentials, he wasn’t included in that year’s New Zealand Schools side after having pre-committed himself to rugby league, but with just one year left on his deal with the Warriors, he could be the target of numerous union and league clubs alike.

It would likely take some convincing to sway the New Zealand and Samoan dual international back to XVs, though, as he has previously talked of his passion for league over union.

“Just because of the school I went to, I got put into a rugby program, but I knew coming out of that I wanted to play league,” he told the New Zealand Herald in 2017.

“I wasn’t too torn between the two [codes], I was more ready for league straight out of school.

“Signing with the Warriors before I started my last year, kind of undercut everything. They [scouts] knew what I was doing so I didn’t get too much hassle about it but my school supported me well so it was a good year.”

While Tuivasa-Sheck and Papali’i aren’t likely to make the cross back to the codes of which they shone in during secondary school, the influx of talent crossing the border from league to union can’t be ignored.

Sonny Bill Williams may have bucked the trend by throwing his lot in with the Canadian-based Super League debutants, but there remains a plethora of younger, very capable athletes from the NRL with aspirations of fulfilling their potential in XVs.

Some of whom, like Semi Radradra, are even turning their backs on returning to the 13-man code to build on the promising foundations they’ve laid during their spells in union.

Latrell Mitchell might never join the likes of Radradra, Suliasi Vunivalu and Solomone Kata in making the prosperous switch.

But – as one of rugby league’s household names – by making himself available to such an option and join the growing chorus of genuine league stars associated with a cross-code move is indicative of union’s upper hand in terms of pulling power over their league cousins.

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The NRL stars who could strengthen union's ongoing battle with rugby league