Sam Burgess has been described as many different things throughout his career: destructive, passionate, and awesome are all very fitting ways to refer to a man who lit the world of Rugby League alight.
However, following the announcement of Burgess’s return to NRL side South Sydney Rabbitohs after an abortive attempt to convert to Rugby Union, one more word must be added to that list – failure.
Burgess had all the attributes to become a true Rugby Union great; players and coaches alike from both codes can agree on that much at least. Standing at six feet 5 inches and weighing in at just over 18 stone, Burgess is a human wrecking-ball; his nickname of “Slammin’ Sam” attests to that. In the Premiership last season Burgess brought a level of physicality in defence only matched in recent years by the Tuilagi brothers and was comfortably one of the the most powerful ball carriers in the league.
When you combine this with an incredible work ethic and an insatiable appetite for success, there was no reason to think in September of last year that Burgess would not join the likes of Jason Robinson, Sonny Bill Williams and Israel Folau in the ranks of players who have made successful transitions.
For Burgess, though, it was not to be. But why? Burgess himself cited family reasons as the cause of his decision to return to Rugby League but this justification, even though it most likely contains elements of truth, does not tell the whole story. I doubt very much that Burgess would be returning to Australia and Rugby League for personal reasons if England had won the World Cup and he himself been awarded player of the tournament.
In my mind, the England management must take the blame for this embarrassing fiasco. The first mistake was made by the England selectors for including Burgess in the World Cup squad at all. Twenty-one first-team games is just not enough for any league convert, even a player of Burgess’s undoubted quality, to master the intricacies of union to such an extent that he can perform on the international stage. To expect that of Burgess was quite simply inexcusable and has led this former prodigal son to be scapegoated for England’s World Cup failure. England head coach Stuart Lancaster then proceeded to compound the issue by playing Burgess out of position. From the moment Burgess arrived at England, Lancaster envisioned him as the next Sonny Bill Williams; a rampaging centre who had the physical presence to drag in multiple defenders but the deftness of touch to offload in contact and the vision to create moments of individual magic. Initially, Bath head coach Mike Ford agreed but it quickly became apparent that Burgess was not suited for the role. Defensively Burgess was often caught out of position whilst in attack he looked one dimensional. Such weaknesses which would come back to haunt him during his World Cup nightmare.
In contrast, when he played as blindside flanker Burgess looked the real deal, carrying the ball with power and making a real nuisance of himself at the breakdown. Lancaster’s decision, therefore, to persist with his plan to play Burgess at centre condemned this chapter of Burgess’s life to ignominious failure.
What now for Sam Burgess you might ask? Well, Burgess will return to Australia where he will be greeted in the manner that all sporting galacticos should. He will once again play the sport that he loves and within a year will be lauded as the best player in Rugby League once more. But what about the future of English Rugby Union? Well, fans will watch all this from 10,000 miles away and dwell upon on what might have been.
Image courtesy of Eva Rinaldi