Let's give the Bath back-row some time, says Will Macpherson
Hey, English Rugby. I’ve an idea. See Sam Burgess there? The one who came from League amid unbearably enormous hype and was fast-tracked into the national set-up, where the coaches had totally different ideas for his future to those at his club. Yeah, him. The one who then worked hard and trained the house down to be handed an unlikely place in a World Cup squad at the expense of more experienced candidates and who then, in an embarrassingly subpar collective performance, played exactly how anyone with the slightest bit of foresight would have expected: occasionally excellent, occasionally shown up, as the team fell at the first hurdle. Yep, let’s blame him.
The excellent #BlameBurgess twitter campaign is, of course, delivered with tongue placed firmly in cheek. But it comes from solid ground; at some stage or another, Burgess has been pilloried for just about everything, including – remarkably, in a sport so prone to highhorse-ism and desperate to show off quite how sporting it is while deriding less “gentlemanly” games – talking to the Australians as the players shook hands last week. String the man up.
A couple of days after bookies stopped taking bets on a League return, Mike Ford insisted Burgess would stay in Union. But you couldn’t blame Burgess for wanting to go back. Indeed, you couldn’t blame him for wondering why he ever took on the challenge in the first place. There was nothing about the move that he needed, after all. Much remains for him in League.
Burgess wanted simply to succeed in a second code, and the nascent signs are that he has the hunger – the one thing we knew he had in spades – to continue on that journey. But what have the main features of his first year in the job been? There have been hits and carries, and probably only as many as really could have been expected, and plenty of mistakes too.
But as he’s looked to learn the code, he’s been over-promoted, found himself politicised – right down to Stuart Lancaster pettily dropping him from the 23 to face Uruguay – and had his attempts to learn picked apart ruthlessly by pundits at home and abroad. His inexperience has been exposed occasionally, but not nearly as often as his detractors claim.
His selection was not based on rugby nous but was a punt and an adventure, as he and Henry Slade caught Luther Burrell and Billy Twelvetrees napping. It hasn’t quite worked, but it shows what shaky ground Lancaster and co are stood on that it is arguably not the worst choice in the squad, and certainly not the worst for the eventual XVs. Burgess, who was far from England’s weakest player at the tournament, did not select himself. Blame him, and ask yourself this: was he really key to England’s disastrous campaign?
There are those, it seems, who were desperate for him to fail from the start. Perhaps they believed he simply he did not have what it takes to succeed. Or maybe it was his sheer ambition, and belief he could instantly play at the World Cup. Or the fast-tracking, the big contract, the media circus or even a disdain for Rugby League and the idea of a big, bruising, bulldozing forward enjoying a successful conversion (there wasn’t much precedent for Burgess, remember). Who knows.
All fans, press and ex-players will do by pinning too much blame on Burgess is drive him away, and that whichever way you square it, is a monumental folly. A year is no time in sport, and it is even less time to learn a sport. In fact, in the positions he has played, it’s quite staggering that he is as good as he already is. Burgess is box-office, a winner and a class act, and union will only be weaker if he is lost. Rugby is making itself appear even more insular and elitist (I see Jarryd Hayne being encouraged, not vilified, by NFL fans, for instance) and will only further ruffle feathers in the League community. There’s really no need.
The truth is that as much as most people wanted this to work, and as impressive as the strides he has already made are, Burgess was not ready for this World Cup. Now, though, he needs more time with Bath, more time on basics, an actual position, not petty club and country squabbling and maybe we could even afford him a bit of space, too. He’s 26 years old and 15 starts into his Union career. He has shown enough at the World Cup alone to reinforce the view that, in time, he can be a top international. Let him go now and it’s a complete and utter waste.