Code jumpers: Would Kalyn Ponga & Ardie Savea be successful?

Do Kalyn Ponga [L] and Ardie Savea [R] possess the skills to be successful in the other code? Getty Images

There has been a long history of players switching codes between rugby league and rugby union, and vice-versa.

The latest examples came this week when All Blacks star Ardie Savea told a New Zealand sports podcast he would '100 percent' like to try his hand in the NRL while news of Newcastle Knights star Kalyn Ponga making a one-year switch in a bid to play at the Rugby World Cup in 2023 also set tongues wagging.

So what chance would both men be of achieving their reported goals? Darren Arthur and Sam Bruce give their thoughts below.


Ardie Savea has fired up conversations across the rugby and rugby league worlds after he boldly announced his desire to, at some point, test himself in the NRL.

The mobile back-rower certainly has the game to make the transition. His performances for the Hurricanes in Super Rugby last season, were so impressive that he forced the All Blacks to alter their back-row composition. More mobile, and certainly quicker than the standard blindside flanker, the All Blacks' forward structure evolved to accommodate his talents.

It appears as though the 26-year-old would tear it up on the edge of the NRL ruck with his hard running, deceptive turn of pace, elusive footwork and more than handy offload. He has also proven himself defensively at the highest levels of rugby and his sevens background ensures he has the motor to get through a grueling NRL outing.

There are not a lot of precedents to judge the potential success of this move. If you search the history books, the name Ray Price would stand out as possibly the most successful to make the transition. The tough-as-nails dual international played seven Tests for the Wallabies before making the move to the professional code in 1976. He went on to play a leading role in the Eels' premiership hat-trick in the 1980s, a feat which has not been matched since.

Michael O'Connor was another dual international who left the Wallabies, in 1983, after 13 Tests, to find success at the highest level in rugby league. O'Connor was a fleet-footed outside back who had the added advantage of being one of the game's greatest goal-kickers. He won a premiership with Manly in 1987 and played 18 Tests for the Kangaroos.

Since rugby union went professional, the flow of players has generally been in the opposite direction, so any move by Savea's - or any other rugby player for that matter -- would be watched with great interest.

Any NRL club signing him would have to decide whether he would be best utilized in the forwards or in the backs. Similar in build to the new crop of NRL centres including the Roosters' Joseph Manu and the Sharks' Bronson Xerri, he could easily match the outside backs for pace, while escaping the larger defensive workload of the pack.

And he's not mucking around with his intentions either, stating that his preference would be for a start with either the Sydney Roosters or Melbourne Storm, the two top NRL teams of the past decade. It might seem a bit cheeky of him to lay claim to a spot on one of the top NRL rosters, but this is a player who is ranked among the best in the world in his position, who is after a new challenge and is not looking to take any shortcuts.

It just so happens that the Roosters would have more than likely jumped at the opportunity to sign him this season, as they search for someone to fill the enormous Latrell Mitchell shaped hole in their backline. They have already made a play at poaching Josh Morris from the Sharks, with Cronulla denying them that solution.

Would Savea go to a club like the Titans to really test himself? The transition would certainly be tougher than slotting into the systems in place at either the Storm or Roosters.

And who knows, maybe Savea is merely flagging his interest in another code to drive up his value to New Zealand Rugby?

Darren Arthur


Stories about NRL players considering a code swap are nothing new and while many are the work of player managers trying to drive up the wage value of their client, there are a handful of examples of the switch going through.

The likes of Marika Koroibete, Tepai Moeroa, Solomone Kata and Suniali Vunivalu [2021] have all signed with rugby over the last few years, while Sonny Bill Williams and Israel Folau find themselves back in rugby league for vastly different reasons.

Kalyn Ponga's situation however is more akin to that of Moeroa in that both players were schoolboy rugby stars; it is the same instance that has brought about a tug-o-war for boom prospect Joseph Suaali.

You only have to log onto YouTube to find a highlights package of Ponga carving up Brisbane's GPS rugby competition for Churchie Grammar School. But that was four years ago.

The first question for Ponga is whether or not he really wants to pursue rugby. How serious was he when, nearly two years ago, he told New Zealand television that he would love to have a crack at playing for the All Blacks one day?

The second is whether the NRL would rubber-stamp a one-year release to play in a rival code, which is the contract Newcastle Knights have reportedly presented Ponga according to reports in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Would Todd Greenberg be happy if one of the game's brightest stars departed to try his luck in the third biggest sporting tournament the world has to offer? As written by ESPN colleague Liam Napier, it may well be a reality that sports administrators - particularly those in rugby and rugby league - are faced with increasingly into the future.

If, hypothetically, that all gets signed off and Ponga lobs in Super Rugby at the start of 2023, making himself eligible for the All Blacks in the process, would he make the World Cup squad?

Firstly, how good would it be to see both Ponga and Beauden Barrett at the Blues beforehand! That would certainly bring the crowds back to Eden Park.

Ponga would have around 15 Super Rugby games in which to impress selectors, followed by a handful of warm-up Tests -- providing he had performed for his franchise to begin with - to earn selection for the World Cup.

If that appears unlikely, then you only have to look at Crusaders winger Sevu Reece who claimed the last place in the Crusaders' 2019 squad and then, nine months later, found himself starting in a World Cup semifinal. It shows how far a player can come in one year, albeit one who has been ensconced in rugby for some time.

Ponga would need to familiarise himself with the positional play of a rugby fullback once again, but he would certainly add a dangerous attacking threat from the back and one that would give the All Blacks yet another playmaking partnership to consider.

But Barrett is not the only fullback option the All Blacks are likely to have come 2023, either. David Havili, Damian McKenzie and Jordie Barrett are all genuine options at 15, who, as long as they stay in New Zealand between now and 2023, are likely to have been in and around the All Blacks environment for some time.

Ponga is undoubtedly a huge talent, but I fear he would need longer than nine months to really establish himself amongst a list of New Zealand outside back contenders that won't be short on quality.

If he were to sign a multi-year deal with NZ Rugby at some point however, I believe he could be one of most electric rugby players of the decade. And the All Blacks would be blessed with yet another attacking ace.

Sam Bruce