Sam Burgess: One sad story in a saga of similar tales
It took Sam Burgess nine years from his debut for Bradford Bulls to his crowning as Rugby League’s International Player of the year award in 2014, the highest individual accolade in the sport. In 12 months, 21 appearances for Bath and 5 for England, Slammin’ Sam (as his adoring fans in Sydney christened him) was expected to reach similar heights in Rugby Union. Yet Burgess leaves Union in a cloud of ‘what ifs’ at a time in which the national game sinks into a gloomy grave it has seemingly dug itself.
Sam Burgess is neither the first nor the last to have trodden the path from League to Union without much success but never has it been so highly scrutinised and never seemingly so horrifically wrong. Another example is Benji Marshall, the mesmerising wizard and hero of the West Tigers, captain of New Zealand and winner of the League World Cup in 2008. He made six appearances for the Auckland Blues, only one as a starter before returning to League in 2014. Marshall easily falls into the same category as Burgess. Both prodigious talents forced into a sport they do not know and expected by a nation to be a superstar overnight.
Nonetheless, some League converts have become some of the most revered household names in Union. So are Burgess and Marshall just two of a group who cannot make it at Union? The sheer athleticism of Burgess surely has the makings of a phenomenal Union player?
Here’s a hypothetical for you. A top quality brick-layer becomes an architect in less than a year, would you let him build your house?
Israel Folau and Sonny Bill Williams faced one another in the World Cup Final last weekend. Both plied their trade successfully in the NRL before they came to Union. Their stories are quite different to Marshall and Burgess. There is a blooper real of Folau dropping balls in Super Rugby as he learnt the new sport for the New South Wales Waratahs, before a two try debut for Australia against the British and Irish Lions in 2013.
Sonny Bill Williams had a more discreet Union education beginning in the French Second Division with Toulon, learning from the likes of Jonny Wilkinson and Tana Umaga. It took 28 months before he made his All Blacks debut; still he is used as an impact substitute most of the time. Like Marshall and Burgess both are exceptional athletes, Folau also played Aussie Rules and Sonny Bill held the heavyweight boxing title in New Zealand. Where Folau and Sonny Bill differ is the time they had to mature and develop, learning Union without the constant speculation of the media or the public or national coaches. Another similar case is Chris Ashton, who started his career with Northampton in England’s second flight and then took another year in the Premiership before he became a renowned finisher.
Andy Farrell of all people should have understood Burgess’ dilemma. He was selected for England at Centre, making a handful of appearances, but his club Saracens chose to play him at flanker. Many have pinned the blame on the coaches and especially Farrell for selecting Burgess when he was not ready for a position he should never have been played in by England.
Yet, this is not the first time this has happened with England. Henry Paul, magisterial for Wigan, Bradford and New Zealand made his England Union debut only a few months after joining Gloucester in 2001, and he admitted not feeling comfortable in Union until 2003 when he was nominated for Premiership player of the season.
Clearly the issue runs deeper than this. Yes, there are some players who can make it in Union after only a few months, such as Jason Robinson. However, there is far less game managemenr to learn as a wing or full back compated to the intricacies of the breakdown, lineout and scrum that a forward must learn.
League converts require time. Kyle Eastmond was scintillating for Bath last season, and some argue he should have made England’s final World Cup squad. Although injury-plagued, he has been in Union for 4 years and has had less media coverage in those years than Burgess has had in months. The issue is that coaches seemed to become embroiled in the hype that a big money move meant for a high profile superstar. In fact there seems the allure of a League convert that no other player brings, a sense of uniqueness that could solve any coach’s problems in an instant.
In another attempt to solve the midfield dilemma plauging England, Joel Tomkins played four games for England at Centre in 2013 before returning from
Saracens to Wigan without the bat of an eyelid in 2014. Evidently he did not succeed and is back in League after 40 games for Saracens.
Have you heard of Josh Jones? He’s the 22 year old centre who won the Super League title in 2014 with St Helens. He is now a centre at Exeter Chiefs, currently on loan at National League 2 side Taunton, three tiers below the Premiership. He has no media pressure, no expectation and a coaching team willing to give him the time to develop and learn his trade.
The sad story of Sam Burgess is one in a saga of similar tales, only this one is more well known, more documented and the most expensive. It acts as a cautionary tale to all Rugby converts: Union takes time, it is a new sport whose only similarity is the shape of the ball. This is a caution not for players but for coaches and fans alike a caution that if heeded could produce a superstar, a Sonny Bill Williams, member of a World Cup winning team.