With Sam Burgess airbound en route for Sydney his departure from Bath was announced, leading to recriminations and regret
Remember, remember the 5th of November. Lancaster, Burgess and flop?
Okay, I’m being glib, but I feel for Sam Burgess. He didn’t ask to become the most-hyped league convert in the union game. Nor did he beg for a place in England’s World Cup squad. And he wouldn’t have expected to have been caught in a positional disagreement between club and country.
He certainly didn’t deserve to be singled-out as the reason for England’s premature World Cup exit. His performances in the pool stages may not have set the world alight, but he didn’t make horrendous gaffes either. He did what the coaches asked of him – ran hard into contact, made the odd offload and hit his defensive targets.
The problem was there were other players who could have been more effective in midfield, who could have offered something different and more creative. The likes of Henry Slade, Luther Burrell and Kyle Eastmond.
That is not Burgess’s fault, though. No, the error lies with the coaches – Stuart Lancaster, Andy Farrell, Mike Catt and Graham Rowntree – for fast-tracking him through to Test rugby at a speed that would have left Usain Bolt flailing in his vapour trails.
The fact is he wasn’t ready. It all came too soon. He didn’t yet have the understanding of all of rugby’s myriad nuances. And the blame for that lies with the coaches who thought his ability as a leader and inspirer-of-men outweighed his limited grasp of the union game. It’s something that they will be held accountable for in the ongoing RFU review of the World Cup process. Whether it will deal them a mortal blow remains to be seen.
The real shame is that Burgess could have developed into an outstanding union player, just as he is an outstanding league player. He has all the attributes – he just wasn’t given time to get to grips with the new code.
Sonny Bill Williams provides a perfect contrast. He learnt the game in the French second division in 2008 with Toulon before heading back to New Zealand. Now he’s been part of two World Cup-winning campaigns.
We will never know how good a player Burgess could have been and whether he could have enjoyed similar success to Williams. He’s gone too soon.
As much as I feel for Burgess after a torrid experience in union, I think his decision to head back to Australia and league after less than a year in his new code leaves a poor impression. All the talk when he was picked in the England squad was about the impact he had in training, his leadership qualities, his ‘aura’, yet he has packed up and bolted for Down Under without finding out if he can make a real success of the switch.
Yes, he’s been the victim of some harsh criticism. Yes, it’s not been the most pleasant few months. And all that is likely to have played a part in his decision to rejoin the Rabbitohs as much as the fact he misses his family. But surely the way to prove the doubters wrong is to knuckle down, grasp the game and excel on the pitch. He stood out as a back-row in last season’s Aviva Premiership final and had he continued on that path, perhaps he would have gone on to play a bigger role in England’s 2019 campaign.
Instead, he’s gone back to the comfort of Sydney, leaving the likes of Burrell and Eastmond to wonder what might have been given that he was selected in the World Cup squad ahead of them. A penny for discarded Bath backrows Matt Garvey, Carl Fearns‘ thoughts wouldn’t go amiss either.
One final point, and this is less about Burgess and more about Bath’s business dealings. Put aside the fact that they’ve insisted for weeks that Burgess was staying with the club – a ridiculous amount of misinformation being put out to the media.
The Rabbitohs have reportedly paid Bath in the region of £700,000 to secure Burgess’s release. Bruce Craig also apparently netted money on the transfer of Will Genia to Stade Francais when the Wallaby scrum-half hadn’t even donned a Bath jersey. These sort of dealings smack of football where a manager would repeatedly say its star player was not for sale before a terse statement said he’d been sold to the highest bidder. If a contract is now no longer worth the paper it’s printed out, rugby is going to become a poorer place for it.
I wish Burgess all the best back in rugby league, but also feel a tinge of regret that union never saw the best of him. Oh, what might have been…