A first Bath start for Sam Burgess on Friday brought a blend of immense raw ability and moments of understandable inexperience. Overall, it was extremely encouraging. We analyse a fascinating evening for the league convert.
What a treat. After months of opinions ranging from social media suggestions to ostentatious open letters, there was actually some meaningful action on which to judge how Sam Burgess is progressing in rugby union.
While a couple of 20-minute cameos had provided glimpses of his transition over the past fortnight, a maiden start for Bath against Montpellier allowed a more accurate gauge. Following a full part in a 32-12 win, anyone wishing him well can feel quietly encouraged.
Burgess’ visceral edge, grounded attitude and singular focus make him perfectly equipped to make rapid improvements. This new boy just wants to chuck himself in at the deep end and figure things out.
Relentless work-rate and willpower will definitely help him there. On Friday evening he racked up 17 tackles from centre – one more than the heroic Brad Barritt managed against Australia. Even behind a pack that was hammered at the set-piece, he got through seven carries. Most encouragingly, Burgess shirked nothing at the breakdown.
All of this industry represented opportunities to make mistakes and, crucially, to learn. Here is a run-down of a promising display.
02:15 Lucky bounce
Burgess’ first contribution came down to an iffy decision from television match official Carlo Damsco, who ruled there to be no knock-on and for Matt Banahan not to have been offside after collecting the ball from a ricochet off his teammate’s thigh:
There are reasons to be cheerful despite the slice of luck. First, Burgess’ presence helps create the initial opening:
Standing inside George Ford, he attracts the attention of the Montpellier defence. They jam in and Ford can float out a pass to Leroy Houston, cutting out hooker Ross Batty.
Burgess’ support line is good and he would have scored himself with a higher offload from Houston. The reverse angle offers better insight:
05:13 Contact area carnage
Minutes later, Burgess did get his hands on the ball:
Even in heavy traffic – Springbok opposite number Wynand Olivier is pretty close to tackling him without the ball – Burgess barges over the gain-line and wins a penalty from referee Marius Mitrea as one of the three tacklers, hooker Charles Geli, does not release before trying to win the ball on the floor. Bath gain three points.
Interestingly, Burgess gets to his feet to ensure the ruck is won, showing appreciation for the nuances of his new sport. More of that shortly. For now, a closer look at scrum-half Chris Cook‘s options from this lineout demonstrates how defences will react to such a direct carrier:
As Burgess steams off Cook’s shoulder, Semesa Rokoduguni and Ford are ignored as three Montpellier men flood the same channel. Later, similar ‘honey-potting’ proves costly.
From the ensuing restart, Ford went high and Banahan forced fly-half Enzo Selponi to infringe:
Banahan was brilliant all night and this is another superb effort, making the hit and then marching into the space beyond the ball. Watch once more what happens after poor Selponi ships a penalty, though. He is smashed by Burgess, who recovers his feet before bulldozing over his man:
This is a satisfying retort for anyone who thought he might struggle to lower the upright collisions that characterised his league success. The tackle is copy-book and, as he bounces back up, his driving position is flawless:
Especially for those who see his future as a back-rower, this was very heartening. After a momentary stutter, the physicality did not ease.
09:44 Miss and hit
Selponi then seized a modicum of revenge by dancing past Burgess, confirming that body-position alteration and arm-wrapping remains a work in progress:
It is coming, though. In a microcosm of his short time at Bath thus far, Burgess halted all 122 kilograms of Robins Tchale-Watchou on the gain-line from the very next phase:
12:38 Olivier outmuscled
A reminder: Olivier has 38 South Africa caps. Burgess will come up against bigger international reputations soon enough. He would do well to treat them all like this:
Working with midfield partner Jonathan Joseph, Burgess drifts softly before striking as Montpellier attempt a simple switch.
A tackle around the sternum suits the situation, preventing an offload and propelling Olivier into touch:
13:20 More decoy danger
From the resulting lineout, Burgess tears forward again, this time off the shoulder of Ford. Olivier steps in on a payback mission and Rokoduguni skates away:
Isolating the moment Ford releases the pass, we see how Olivier’s desire to stop Burgess (blue circle) disconnects him from fellow Montpellier centre Robert Ebersohn and manufactures a large gap:
Though Rokoduguni holds on for too long, Anthony Watson saves him with a fine offload and Banahan is in again.
18:10 Isolated and penalised
As mentioned, this was an 80-minute lesson punctuated by steep learning curves. This was one of them. Burgess carries strongly but concedes a holding on penalty:
He is unlucky here. David Wilson and Alafoti Faosiliva do not execute the clear-out and it could be argued that the tackler does not release Burgess before getting over the ball. In any case, the tutorial is clear: pump your legs in contact until you are sure support can arrive.
21:42 Toppling Tulou
Francois Louw has been assigned the task of being Burgess’ specialist breakdown coach. By chopping down Montpellier lynchpin Alex Tulou brilliantly, Burgess served his mentor a turnover to yield another three points for Bath:
We all know how much he relishes contact, so the fact he can fell such an effective carrier is not surprising. It is the manner in which he fights to roll away from the tackle – obviously unnecessary in league – that is most striking.
Take another glance:
28:16 Audacious grubber
Bath’s main priority was to win with a four-try bonus point. With that in mind, there was license to try things. And why not? This very nearly came off:
40:20 Offloading and organising
Having been comfortably bettered in the 10-minute spell up until half-time, Bath needed an assertive start to the second period.
Burgess was at the forefront of that, latching onto Dominic Day‘s charge-down and finding Cook with an offload:
With Cook trapped in the ruck, Burgess then shows awareness to assume the scrum-half role. He finds Stuart Hooper and then hits the ruck for good measure:
50:20 and 56:00 Uncomplicated, accurate clear-outs
Chris Ashton is one league convert whose support lines are consistently world class, aiding his crossover to union. Burgess displayed similar instincts on Friday.
Where Ashton usually sniffs scoring chances, Burgess tailed runners and launched himself into the breakdown to ensure possession was won. This electric break from Joseph was a prime example:
One major advantage of Burgess’ lack of union experience is that he has a blank canvas in some areas. The way in which Rene Ranger is banished from the breakdown confirms how well Toby Booth and Neil Hatley are doing:
Less conspicuous but just as important is this piece of protection after Ford takes a high ball slightly later:
57:32 Choking up
Burgess was animated throughout the game. He swore loudly on conceding the holding on penalty and winked at Ford following a second-half carry. However, after wrapping up Tulou to form a maul and force a turnover, he was evidently ecstatic.
It’s easy to see why:
There is even a little glance at the referee here. It’s almost as if he has been affecting choke tackles for five years…
64:24 Spill in contact
Ranger is a fine player who would have appeared in many more All Blacks Tests should he have opted to remain in New Zealand.
His know-how tells here, as Burgess is hit from the side, forcing the ball loose:
72:09 An honest mistake
If you had believed some social media whispers last week, Burgess was only going to last a couple of minutes before seeing either yellow or red for a swinging arm. As it was, he only gave away a pair of penalties, both on technicalities.
This second one might easily have been applauded if it was Richie McCaw or Michael Hooper swooping on what looks like a straightforward knock-on rather than a ruck situation. Decide for yourselves:
74:32 Late lapse
Bath only had 42 per cent of possession, and the majority of that time was spent trying to work Burgess into space. Sadly, the only time he found open grass in front of him, he snatched at the chance:
Latching onto Houston’s muscular carry and deft offload, Burgess should have simply drawn Ranger and released Louw. A still of the moment he drops the ball onto his foot does not make for comfortable viewing:
Composure will come. In the event, this kick was weighted nicely. Ranger carried over his own try-line and Bath pressurised long enough to force their fourth try.
Even so, Burgess wore a frustrated expression at the final whistle, probably because of this trio of late set-backs. He is so ambitious that he will dwell longer on the negatives than the numerous positives. For him, Bath and ultimately England, that is the best approach.
Burgess will be on the bench this Sunday at Kingsholm and then Ford senior will decide whether to involve him in clashes with Exeter, Leicester and Wasps. Then comes a potential Saxons assignment.
Whether or not World Cup honours arrive, his journey will be intriguing. As Friday showed, Burgess already has a solid base from which to build.