The global club rugby game would be a boring place if there wasn’t a single professional overseas player. It is more common to see players from the southern hemisphere moving to Europe where there is more money in the game than the other way round. But, there are great examples of players moving to Australia and New Zealand to develop their rugby before heading back home to the UK. With the rise of the domestic game in Japan, this is becoming a popular route for many later in their careers to finish with a healthy pay packet.
From the early days with Pat Lam at Northampton and Michael Lynagh at Saracens around the turn of the century. To the current crop of overseas professionals spread across the globe. The finest imports are not measured purely by on-field deeds but often by the hole they leave at a club upon their departure.
Below we will look in a little more detail at some of the most famous professional players to play outside of their home country. Looking at just a few will leave out the hundreds of players making the domestic game a much brighter and diverse place.
In June 2008, Carter made the decision to sign a six-month contract with French club side Perpignan, who paid Carter the staggering equivalent of £30,000 per game. This kind of money had not been seen in club rugby before.
After helping the All Blacks win the Rugby World Cup, the kiwi first joined Racing in 2015. It was known at the time as the biggest contract in world rugby. He was part of Racing’s 2016 Top 14 championship winning team and helped them to two runners up medals in the European Champions Cup. Carter, who won 112 All Black caps, scored 445 points in 58 games for Racing.
He left France at the end of the 2017-18 season to join the Kobelco Steelers in Japan.
Carter has the rare accolade of being on championship winning teams in three countries – New Zealand, France and Japan.
Wilkinson won 91 caps for England and he was an integral member of the England squad which won the 2003 World Cup. ‘Wilko’, one of England’s most well known players was one of the first to move to France and paved the way for many more to follow. In 2009 he moved to Toulon, where he won two Heineken Cups and one Top 14 championship in five seasons.
Like many that moved to France, Wilkinson was well paid but he also recognised the other benefits the relocation had for his rugby. “The best thing about it for me,” said Wilkinson, “is that I don’t know the people I’m playing against. It’s a nice break to play rugby, for the simplicity of playing rugby.
Harlequins stalwart Evans moved to London in 2008 and was a chief architect of on-field success of the club. He started for Harlequins in their 2011–12 Premiership final victory over Leicester Tigers and scored six penalties and one conversion.
Evans gave up on a potential shed load of caps for the All Blacks. New Zealand’s loss has repeatedly been The Stoop’s gain. Today he continues at the club in a coaching capacity, proving the worth of his big decision.
The versatile Australian flanker who has played 111 times for his country has applied his trade all over the world. In June 2010, Smith signed a one-year contract with French Top 14 club Toulon. His RC Toulon teammates included former Highlander and All Black prop Carl Hayman.
Smith became the highest paid Australian rugby player by signing with Japanese club, Suntory Sungoliath, on a $3.3 million three-year deal. He then played for a short time in France with Stade Francais and Lyon before heading to England, joining Wasps in 2015. In his first season, Smith was voted Aviva Premiership Players Player of the year.
He then returned to his home country of Australia before another stint in Japan and then finished his career in the UK at Bristol Bears.
Murphy made the short trip over from Ireland in the late 90’s. 316 games and a cabinet full of trophies later for his adopted Tigers are decent credentials. He is still there in a coaching capacity and his old team-mates still talk in superfluous tones about his natural ability; one of the best they had the joy to share a field with. Geordan Murphy has now been living in Leicester for over half his life, a true testament to the kind of commitment that says it all.
2 x world cup winner was one of the first marquee signings in Major League Rugby when he joined San Diego Legion for the 2020 season. This is his second overseas stint, having also played for Toulon in France.
Haskell is one of very few English players to move abroad early in their careers, due to its negative impact on international selection. He moved to France in 2008 to play for Stade Francais and played nearly 50 times for the Parisian club. Haskell has also had seasons in the southern hemisphere playing for the Rams in Tokyo and the Highlanders in New Zealand. Commenting on these moves Haskell said “One of the opportunities these last two overseas moves have afforded me is the chance to work in different environments with different players”.
The Argentinian played in a period when there was no super rugby team in his home country and so playing overseas was his only real option. Contepomi moved to England in 2001 and began his European adventure in Bristol. Since then, he has had spells in Ireland with Leinster where he amounted over 100 caps. Most recently he was playing in France, firstly with Toulon and then finishing his career at Stade Francais.
These are just a few of the many players in the professional era that have made the move abroad to experience new cultures, improve their rugby (and maybe make a bit of extra cash). But playing rugby overseas isn’t just limited to professional athletes, anyone can use rugby as a springboard to achieving their travelling dreams. Find out more here…