Rugby Union

The Curious Case of Sam Burgess

The IABA aren’t exactly in the good graces of the Irish public of late. And Jose Mourinho is in the midst of a highly entertaining egocentric, paranoid mess. But nobody in the international locality looks quite as foolish right now as the RFU, the ‘powers that be’ of English rugby. England’s shambolic performance in a home World Cup has been compounded by the return of Sam Burgess, as expected, to the National Rugby League and his former club, South Sydney Rabbitohs.

The Yorkshireman did not perform well over the last three months, but there was a sense that he was hung out to dry, to a certain extent, by many in the rugby union fraternity. Now as the dust settles, the real criticisms are rightly being aimed at the incompetents who decided that a rugby league convert could fit seamlessly into an international midfield in the space of ten months. Oh, and all this, while he played at a different position for his club, Bath.

Surely more should have been made of the fact that Burgess was employed as a blindside flanker by Bath while being asked to flip over to inside-centre while on England duty? This is actually unheard of in modern rugby, except seemingly when a rugby league convert enters the fray.

There would be widespread condemnation of Joe Schmidt and his management team if, for example, Sean O’ Brien was asked to moonlight at first centre while in an Irish jersey. Or if Sam Warburton was chosen as Wales’ midfield linkman. Why, then, was it not considered extraordinary that an incredibly inexperienced player was being asked to man two hugely different positions for two different teams? That kind of thinking is completely and utterly, batshit crazy.

Burgess spent his time at Bath at flanker and with England at centre. What could possibly go wrong?

Burgess spent his time at Bath at flanker and with England at centre. What could possibly go wrong?

Bath were Burgess’ primary paymasters so it made complete sense that they would deploy him in a position that would benefit their style of play. And, unlike England, Bath are capable of some scintillating backline play. Thus, Mike Ford thought it wiser to use Burgess as a high volume carrier and tackler in the pack. The former Bradford Bull’s ball skills are far and beyond that of the usual forward so this ploy seemed to make complete sense.

However, and this is the point where conjecture enters the piece, it would seem that Burgess was sold on the idea of coming home and representing England at the 2015 Rugby World Cup. Who filled his head with this nonsense? And, considering the situation at Bath who actually accepted the idea as being plausible? If England were so determined to have Burgess in their World Cup then why not bring him as a hybrid, one of a kind, centre-cum-flanker to use off the bench? It would have made about as much sense as what actually happened.

BBC Sport’s Ben Dirs asks the fair question as to whether some culpability in this whole saga lies at Burgess’ feet. Dirs does not point fingers, focusing more on the views of others and their reaction to the twenty-six-year-old returning ‘home’ to Sydney. The overwhelming feeling, however, is that the RFU, and perhaps Burgess’ advisors, were away with the fairies. Some, including dual international Henry Paul, believe Burgess should have given himself more time in rugby union but for us the situation was virtually untenable.

To be quite clear, we’re not Sam Burgess cheerleaders and we too saw that he was poor in the World Cup. And, there is no doubt that Burgess underestimated just how difficult the transition to rugby union would be. With that amount of talent, of course, you should back yourself but you don’t want to veer into Nicklas Bendtner territory.

Nonetheless, in the same way that the RFU were so quick to court Burgess, once the wheels came off in Twickenham, they wanted no part of him. Was Sam Burgess given an unconditional assurance of a World Cup spot? Based on his performances in the centres it seems very possible. He did nothing in the warmup games to suggest he deserved a place and it is beyond madness to expect a rookie, with less than a year’s experience, to suddenly find his feet on the most pressurised stage of them all.

There is a sense of irony or just plain absurdity to how this odd situation has concluded. Sam Burgess, born and bred in Dewsbury, Yorkshire, is returning home to the safety of Redfern, in Sydney’s south inner city. It must have felt so strange to feel homesick and lost in the country where you’ve spent the first twenty-one years of your life, especially after arriving back to such fanfare.

Burgess has a strong familial bond and it is understandable that he would seek his safe haven with those dearest to him. Younger, twin brothers George and Tom are his club mates at the South Sydney Rabbitohs while older brother Luke plies his trade up the coast on Manly’s northern shores. Add to this the facts that mother Judy has relocated to Australia and his fiancée is Australian and one can clearly see why he might return home. Oh, and Burgess is idolised by ‘Bunnies’ fans after leading them in 2014 to a first Grand Final victory in 43 years.

Burgess and South Sydney Rabbitohs teammate, the already legendary Greg Inglis, celebrate 2014's Grand Final victory, the club's first in 43 years.

Burgess and South Sydney Rabbitohs teammate, the already legendary Greg Inglis, celebrate 2014’s Grand Final victory, the club’s first in 43 years. Burgess has re-signed with the Rabbitohs for 2016.

Yet, while the call of home-away-from-home may have played a major part in Sam Burgess’ departure from rugby union, one suspects he would have had little difficulty seeing out his Bath contract if things had been going more smoothly.

It’s worth noting that Sonny-Bill Williams spent two years at the Auckland Blues learning the fundamentals of rugby union before making his New Zealand debut. And, despite what people may think, Burgess is as talented an athlete as Williams, often getting the better of the New Zealander in their encounters down the years.

Mike Ford seems to be the only responsible adult to realise that patience was the key to developing Sam Burgess as a legitimate rugby union player. Nobody questioned his skill-set, potential or confidence, but these attributes combined do not guarantee immediate on-field competence.

The rugby world is, no doubt, in union in their views of the RFU as an organisation that exudes deluded arrogance. Sir Clive Woodward, has rightly derided them as, “the laughing stock of world rugby” and it would be interesting to see what the players think. Although, this doesn’t seem likely, given the squad’s fear that the findings of any post-World Cup internal investigation would be leaked. And, what of Luther Burrell, the man cast aside to make way for the unproven rookie, Burgess. We’re sure he’ll enjoy the grovelling phone call he receives prior to the Six Nations.

Centre Luther Burrell, having done very little wrong, was inexplicably cast aside for the rookie, Burgess

Centre Luther Burrell, having done very little wrong, was inexplicably cast aside for the rookie, Burgess

2014/2015 will surely go down in the interesting category as Sam Burgess looks back over his life. Now, however, he is set to carry on a career that will lead him into the pantheon of rugby league greats. For him, the brief, unsuccessful though not regrettable dalliance with rugby union is over.

For the RFU, the outlook is considerably bleaker. Player confidence must be at an all-time low while the management team -perhaps unsure of the chain of command- are in a virtually untenable position. It will be interesting to see how the situation unfurls. Mind you, those “old farts” in the RFU, as once described by Will Carling, aren’t ones for changing.

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