It must be the most ill-fated sporting conversion since Zola Budd swapped apartheid-era South Africa for Great Britain and Olympic ignominy.
A year ago Sam Burgess played the last of his five rugby union tests for England. It was not a great day. His team crashed out of the World Cup after only three matches, humiliated 33–13 by Australia at Twickenham, the first host nation ever to be dumped out of the tournament so early.
Many union fans were quick to apportion the blame, and Burgess got it in the neck. The attempt to convert the rugby league star into a rugby union centre in double-quick time – he hadn’t even played one full season of union – had failed miserably.
After the ego bruising, the 27-year-old rapidly turned his back on the sport and fled halfway round the world to play league, reportedly for $1.5 million (£900,000) when he rejoined his former club South Sydney Rabbitohs. It made him the highest-paid league player of all time.
And now league’s prodigal son is back on home turf, leading out England’s team against New Zealand in the Four Nations. He says he’s a better player and a better person for the tough times. But is he? Welsh rugby legend and BBC commentator Jonathan Davies, who played both codes in the 1990s, is in no doubt.
“You want the best players in your team, simple as that,” he says. “And Burgess is easily one of England’s best. He has fantastic skills, is aggressive both in his running and in his defence, leads from the front, is a great communicator and has a massive persona. That’s a big game player, whatever the code. He’ll have learnt some tough lessons from his union experiences, but he’ll be a better all-round player for it.”
Davies blames other people for the Burgess/union mismatch. “Sam’s entire experience in union was poorly handled,” he says, implicitly criticising England’s former coach Stuart Lancaster, who played Burgess at centre, and his adopted club Bath, which deployed him as a flanker.
Head down: Stuart Lancaster
“And it wasn’t his fault. There was a lot of speculation at the time as to whether it was too early for him to switch codes, but that wasn’t an issue for me. Had Sam been managed properly he would have been a massive asset to England. He needed to have a fixed position from the start with players around him who would bring the best out of him. That didn’t happen.”
This view doesn’t reflect well on England’s union coaching staff, of course, but Davies isn’t surprised that league head coach Wayne Bennett has made Burgess his “go to” guy for the seven-game tournament between England, Scotland, Australia and New Zealand.
“Sam hasn’t played international rugby league since 2013, but he still has enormous respect amongst the players. Having him in the squad will help England because he plays his club rugby in Australia. In the past when the Aussies came here it felt like they were from another planet, unbeatable superhumans. Now we’ve got guys like Sam playing these guys week in, week out. He will have already beaten them in club matches. The mystique won’t be the same.”
Will Burgess have to contend with negative fallout from league fans who resent him for making the switch to union? “No chance,” says Davies. “Rugby league supporters love him, I’m sure they’ll give him a huge welcome. He’s box office, and what happened in the past won’t make any difference at all. When I played both codes, moving from one to another was frowned upon. Nowadays it’s different. Everyone in rugby league holds Sam in very high regard. This tournament promises to be a brilliant spectacle, and if having Sam leading the England team out increases the interest then so much the better.”
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