Six of rugby’s best crossover athletes

From Sonny Bill Williams to Christian Wade, we recap six of the best players to have left their mark in rugby while playing to a high level in another sport.

It is often said that rugby is a game for all shapes and sizes, and that is borne out by the variety of other sports its players have excelled at.

There are a number of examples, whether it be crossover athletes who come to the game having already thrived in a different environment, such as USA Sevens stars Perry Baker and Carlin Isles, or those who try their hand at another sport following success in rugby, as former Wales Women flyer Non Evans did in judo, weightlifting and wrestling.

We look at six players who have experienced success in rugby and one other sport.

Eric Liddell

The ‘Flying Scotsman’ Eric Liddell won seven caps for Scotland between 1922-1923, lining up on the wing in games against France, Wales, Ireland and England. He scored four tries in the famous dark blue, and lost only one match in test rugby. But, it is as an Olympian that he is best remembered.

Liddell represented Great Britain at the Olympic Games in 1924, where his speed put him among the favourites to win 100m gold. However, as the 100m final was scheduled to take place on a Sunday he refused to run in it due to his religious beliefs. He instead competed in the 400m and won gold, at the same Stade Colombes where he made his test debut for Scotland. His achievement at the Games subsequently inspired the Oscar-winning film Chariots of Fire. 

Heather Moyse

World Rugby Hall of Fame inductee Heather Moyse earned her place among the game’s greats with some outstanding performances for Canada. A pacy back-three player, Moyse scored seven tries at each of the Rugby World Cups she played at, in 2006 and 2010. At RWC 2006, on home soil, she finished the tournament as its highest points scorer. Moyse was also part of the Canada squad that finished as runners-up to New Zealand at Rugby World Cup Sevens 2013 in Moscow.

Those achievements are even more remarkable when you consider that she spent her winters competing in two-woman bobsleigh, winning gold at both the 2010 and 2014 Winter Olympics. Moyse revealed during an episode of Between the Lines earlier this year that having secured gold at the Vancouver Games, she took just two weeks off before preparation began for RWC 2010.

Sonny Bill Williams

Since breaking onto the scene as an 18-year-old in Australia’s National Rugby League, Sonny Bill Williams has enjoyed a trophy-laden career across both rugby codes. Following a spell in France with Toulon, he became a rock in the All Blacks midfield, winning 58 caps and scoring 13 tries. Williams appeared at three Rugby World Cups, as New Zealand won the tournament in 2011 and 2015. He also played for New Zealand Sevens at the Olympic Games in Rio in 2016.

Away from the rugby pitch, however, Williams was also an international-class boxer. He competed in seven professional bouts between 2009-2015, winning all of them. His finest moment in the ring came on 8 February, 2013, when he beat Frans Botha by a unanimous decision to win the vacant World Boxing Association International Heavyweight title.

Melissa Ruscoe

By the time Melissa Ruscoe picked up a rugby ball she was already an established member of the New Zealand women’s football team. She had played football from the age of five, and made her international debut while still a teenager. In total, she won 23 caps for the Football Ferns, scoring two goals, before a team-mate invited her to a pre-season training session in Christchurch.

Ruscoe was initially played on the wing in rugby, in order to utilise her pace, but she had developed into a flanker by the time that Black Ferns honours came her way. It was in the back-row that Ruscoe represented New Zealand at two Rugby World Cups, lifting the trophy at each tournament. Having started the RWC 2006 final win over England in Edmonton, she captained the team to victory against the same opposition at the Twickenham Stoop four years later.

Christian Wade

Former Wasps winger Christian Wade had the English Premiership all-time try-scoring record in his sights when he made the decision to chase a different sporting dream in 2018. Wade had scored 82 tries in England’s top flight, which left him just 10 tries behind Tom Varndell’s record haul. He had represented England at both sevens, in which he scored 22 World Rugby Seven Series tries, and 15s, and had toured with the British and Irish Lions in 2013.

However, he was released from his Wasps contract in October, 2018, in order to try his hand at American football. In April, 2019, Wade signed with the Buffalo Bills as part of the NFL’s International Player Pathway programme and scored a 65-yard touchdown on his first ever carry in the sport. Wade is currently part of the Bills’ practice squad. 

Shaunagh Brown

England prop Shaunagh Brown continued her ascent in international rugby this month as she started both of England’s victories against France. In the five years since she first attended a training session, Brown has progressed from Medway RFC to Harlequins and England, and is now one of her country’s professionally contracted players.

But, as she told World Rugby, until 2015 her main interaction with the game had come during the summer when off-season rugby players would disrupt her athletics training sessions. Brown represented England in the hammer throw at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in 2014. She finished ninth, with a best attempt of 59.37 metres.

READ MORE: Men’s rugby’s all-time most-capped 23 >>

Last updated: Nov 26, 2020, 3:33:11 PM
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