Rugby league's biggest transfers
By Marc Bazeley
Last Updated: 09/11/19 12:08pm
The signing of Sonny Bill Williams by Toronto Wolfpack has been hailed as arguably the biggest in Super League’s history.
The Canadian side have splashed out on a multi-million pound, two-year contract to bring the 34-year-old back to the 13-man code for a third stint after a successful spell playing rugby union.
Here, we take a look at some other notable transfers in rugby league's history, from big-money signings to cross-code stars…
- Marshall: SBW signing a 'real coup'
- 'Sonny Bill the biggest signing in SL history'
- SBW's message to Super League
James Lomas (Bramley to Salford, 1901)
Cumbria-born Lomas shot to prominence in the early years of the Northern Union and was arguably rugby league's first major star attraction.
A hugely talented three-quarter and a prolific goal-kicker, Lomas shot to prominence during his first season with Bramley by scoring 54 points in 31 appearances after being recruited from his hometown amateur club, Maryport.
It was this form which persuaded Salford to make him the first £100 transfer in the professional code's history in 1901 and Lomas went on to enjoy a successful nine-year spell with the club, including setting their individual record for most points in a game of 39, which still stands.
Lomas, who also featured in the first-ever rugby league international between England and Other Nationalities in 1904, would have a then-record transfer fee paid for him a second time when Oldham signed him from Salford for £300 in 1910.
Dally Messenger (Eastern Suburbs RU to Eastern Suburbs, 1907)
Widely regarded as one of the finest players in either code ever to come out of Australia, Messenger's decision to join the nascent New South Wales Rugby Football League in 1907 instantly lent the competition credibility.
Already established as fly-half for Eastern Suburbs in the Sydney competition and having recently earned his first two caps for Australia, Messenger nevertheless stunned the rugby world in Australia by making the switch to the new professional code.
His records were struck from rugby union's books and not restored for 100 years, but the goal-kicking back became an icon of league in the country. Along with becoming an all-time great at Eastern Suburbs - now Sydney Roosters - he starred on the international stage too.
A member of the Australian Rugby League Hall of Fame, Messenger's legacy lives on in the form of the annual Dally M awards for the country's top players and a stand at the Sydney Cricket Ground being named after him.
Ellery Hanley (Bradford Northern to Wigan, 1985)
One of the brightest talents in British rugby league, big-spending Wigan forked out a huge transfer fee plus two players to bring the Bradford centre to Central Park as they began to build a side which would go on to dominate the domestic game.
A deal worth a total of £150,000 saw Phil Ford and Steve Dolan move in the opposite direction as part of the deal to secure Hanley, who had become the first non-winger to score more than 50 tries in a season for over 70 years during the 1984/85 campaign.
It proved to be money well spent for the Cherry & Whites as Hanley's stint with the club saw him score 189 tries in 202 appearances, help the team secure multiple league and cup triumphs, and win the Golden Boot in 1989.
At the age of 30, Hanley would go on to make another big-money transfer when Leeds paid out £250,000 for his services in 1991.
Jonathan Davies (Llanelli RU to Widnes, 1989)
This was move which sent shockwaves through Welsh rugby union and created a huge buzz around Widnes as they tempted the back into turning professional with a lucrative £230,000 deal.
Having starred for Neath and then Llanelli, Davies had risen to become captain of the Wales team. However, he was blamed for the surprise 15-9 defeat to Romania and soon after accepted the financial inducement on offer to help support his family.
It could hardly have worked out better for Davies though as he went on to be a star for both Widnes and later Warrington in the 13-man code, along with becoming a Great Britain regular - including scoring a memorable try against Australia at Wembley in 1994.
Davies was soon followed north by the likes of Paul Moriarty and John Devereux, eventually returning to his union roots with Cardiff in 1995 when the 15-man code went professional.
Andrew Johns (Newcastle Knights to Warrington Wolves, 2005)
Warrington pulled off one of the most eye-catching transfer coups in Super League history when they managed to secure the services of Johns on a short-term deal for the end of the 2005 campaign.
Already a highly-regarded stand-off, State of Origin star for New South Wales and an established Australia international, Johns was brought in to help the Wolves for the closing matches of the regular season and any subsequent play-off games.
Ultimately, he made just three appearances for Paul Cullen's side. Wins over Leeds Rhinos and Hull FC saw Warrington secure a fourth-place finish, but they were eliminated by Hull in the first round of the play-offs and Johns' spell at the club was over.
He was arguably the biggest name to join a team in the competition until Toronto unveiled the signing of Williams.
Sam Tomkins (Wigan Warriors to New Zealand Warriors, 2013)
Tomkins had previously been linked with a switch to rugby union, even going as far as to feature for the Barbarians against Australia in 2011, but he stayed in league after the Auckland-based NRL outfit came in with a world-record bid for his services.
The Warriors paid £700,000 to bring the England international to New Zealand for the 2014 season and he soon displaced Kevin Locke at full-back, going on to score 14 tries in 37 appearances for the club.
However, his time at the Warriors did not go entirely to plan and he ended up being granted an early release from his three-year contract in 2015, returning to Wigan for another three seasons before making the switch abroad again to join Catalans Dragons for 2019.
Sam Burgess (South Sydney Rabbitohs to Bath RU, 2014)
Admittedly this was a transfer out of league to union, but Burgess' decision to try his hand at the 15-man code with the intent of earning a place in England's 2015 Rugby World Cup squad still came as huge news.
Having signed off at South Sydney by helping them win the 2014 NRL Grand Final, Burgess initially played as a flanker in rugby union before switching to the centre and earning a place in the England squad for their home World Cup.
However, the tournament saw Stuart Lancaster's side bow out and at the pool stage and Burgess unfairly shoulder some of the blame. His final appearance for England came in the defeat to Wales, making five appearances for the team in total.
He swiftly agreed a return to rugby league, re-joining South Sydney and staying with them until announcing he was retiring due to a shoulder injury several weeks ago.