Despite inevitable criticism from the ‘traditional’ Rugby League supporters, the Wolfpack’s lucrative capture of Sonny Bill Williams is in line with the sports ambitious and radical past
Rugby league began in 1895 when clubs in the North of England broke away from their southern counterparts. The northern clubs wanted to compensate their players for missing work through injury. Ever since the split and the emergence of two Rugby codes, players have switched between the two.
For most of the 20thcentury, it was League who had the upper hand. The northern clubs mined the deep talent on its doorstep in Wales, which proved to be a hotbed for ‘codebreakers’. Just as the Wolfpack are hoping to do with SBW, the players who historically made the trip ‘up north’ in search of fame and fortune, left seismic impacts on their clubs.
Jim Sullivan was one such player. Born in the poverty of Wales in the early 1900s, he was an unemployed boilerman with plenty of spare time on his hands when Wigan came knocking on his door in 1922. At the height of the great economic depression, the wealthy League administrators expected him to accept an offer. Yet Sullivan drove a hard bargain, He initially refused a £500 sum to move up north before finally accepting £750 to relinquish his Union status with a £5 a week winning bonus added on top.
It proved to be the best piece of business Wigan ever did. Sullivan was instrumental in turning the club into one of the biggest sports teams in the world. Sullivan revolutionised the sport with his attacking fullback play. In 1932 he even attracted the attention of the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII), who became the first member of the Royal Family to visit a League ground.
Visiting the town on a tour of Lancashire, the Prince stopped off to speak with Sullivan at an exhibition match which was being held to raise the attention of unemployment in the area. The Prince was said to be unimpressed, telling Sullivan that the ground ‘isn’t very good is it?’.To Sullivan however it was heaven. He went on to become the club’s record points scorer and is often credited as being their finest ever player.
Sullivan’s legacy in Wigan is perhaps only matched by that of another Welsh Union convert; the great wing wizard Billy Boston. Tipped for stardom at the age of 15, he had also grown up in poverty, in the Welsh town of Tiger Bay. By 19, the major League clubs were interested in coaxing him up north.
Boston didn’t want to go, but Wigan took £1,500 in five-pound notes and put them on his mother’s kitchen table.She finally accepted an offer of £3,500 and told Boston that he was off to play League. For the town of Wigan the capture of Boston rekindled those memories of Sullivan in the pre-war years. The club’s directors plastered flyers advertising his arrival all over the town. A reserve team game was arranged to introduce him and a crowd of 8,500 turned up to witness it. To place it in a modern context, it is a higher attendance than went to watch the current Wigan side play a Play-Off Semi-Final last month. As his biographer Jack Winstanley calculated, Boston’s name on a team sheet could add 5,000 to a gate across the country. He eclipsed Sullivan in the hearts of the Wigan supporters and became an adopted son, staying in the town and becoming embedded in the ethos of the club for the past sixty years.
In the 1960s clubs understood the value of acquiring a big name Rugby Union player. Salford broke the world record transfer when they paid£16,000 for the Welsh Captain David Watkins in 1967. It paid dividends immediately when Salford doubled their attendance figures overnight. His capture sparked a period of success on the field, and like his welsh predecessors, he broke points records which remain untouched.
Perhaps the greatest period was the 1980s when League benefitted from an unapparelled growth in economic fortunes in comparison to Union. Players could be set for life with a move ‘up north’. Welsh Captain Terry Holmes cited economic ‘stability’ as his motivation for a move to Bradford in 1985. He was followed at the end of the decade by the biggest name convert of the era; Jonathan Davies.
Another Wales Captain, Davies caused the ultimate betrayal when he candidly admitted to SportsWeek magazine that he would prefer the £100,000 on offer from League than another 50 caps for Wales. In the end, Davies held out for more and the £230,000 record fee to take him to Widnes set shock waves through both codes. He immediately proved his worth through increased attendances figures while the worlds sports media (including camera crews from France and Australia) captured the game. He immediately became the face of the sport as it grew in the 1990s.
There remained a steady flow of players willing to come across as Union was on the cusp of professionalism. However, the last serving All Black to do so was Va’aiga Tuigamala in the Winter of 1993. It took Wigan £400,000 to entice him to the North of England but his signature, and the worldwide publicity that came with it, proved to be the last of its kind. Since then, the top line international League talent such as Jason Robinson, Andy Farrell and Sam Burgess have taken the riches on offer to embark on a journey the other way.
Toronto have reversed that trend with the signing of Sonny Bill-Williams. While Williams has played League before, it is his name recognition amongst Union supporters that has demanded such a high fee. With it, the Wolfpack hope to generate the ‘x-factor’ when they compete in the Super League next year.
Critics of the Wolfpack will bemoan the large sums of money involved, yet as history shows, the biggest clubs in the English game established themselves on the backs of big money Union purchases.
Today, in Wigan – a town which has created hundreds of League icons – there is only one that has his own statue. It is Billy Boston, the Welsh convert, who remains the man most associated with the club.
By bringing one of the world’s biggest sports stars back to League, the Wolfpack are showing that they understand the history of the sport better than most.
Thomas, Phil., The Central Park Years(Breedon Books, Derby: 1999) p23
“Sports in Brief.” Times, 21 Oct. 1967, p. 6. The Times Digital Archive, http://tinyurl.gale.com/tinyurl/C9vNw0. Accessed 6 Nov. 2019.
Macklin, Keith, et al. “Welsh Rugby Union Captain Switches To Rugby League.” Times, 4 Dec. 1985, p. 25. The Times Digital Archive, http://tinyurl.gale.com/tinyurl/CA3c23. Accessed 6 Nov. 2019.
hands, David. “Rugby League’s money set to capture Davies.” Times, 15 Jan. 1987, p. 42. The Times Digital Archive, http://tinyurl.gale.com/tinyurl/C9w8L3. Accessed 6 Nov. 2019.