Last night, after supervising our family evening meal 45 minutes earlier than is normal, I settled down in the study to watch the Irish Wolfhounds rugby match against England Saxons being played in Cork on Sky Sports 2.
In particular, I was keen to assess the progress of the latest ‘Great White Hope’ to attempt the switch from rugby league to rugby union – Sam Burgess, widely acknowledged as one of the greatest-ever exponents of the 13-man version of the game.
Hitherto – take in the round – it would seem to me that the success record of great league players going on to make the international grade and better in union languishes at less than 50%.
Perhaps the most exceptional example was Jason Robinson, a genius of a running back whose ‘Billy Whizz’ jinking feet would have made him world class in any rugby code in any era, and who played his part in England’s sole Rugby World Cup win in 2003.
Rugby league – which is deliberately designed to be fast, feisty and direct – naturally attracts great physical specimens and athletes. Generally-speaking, its exponents’ ball and tackling skills are uniformly outstanding and its running lines and tactics hugely creative.
In contrast, rugby union is both slower – its rhythms tend to ebb and flow – and its rules and tactical principles far more complex.
When the ball goes off the sidelines in league, the re-start is a simple ‘tap and go’ by the team now in possession of the ball – and when a scrum takes place, the packs simply engage and stand (there is no pushing) and the team in possession for the put-in automatically ‘wins’ the ball to continue play. The guiding principle is to get the game going again as swiftly as possible.
In union, however, both the line-outs following the ball crossing the sidelines and the scrums – to the frustration of many onlookers, it must be admitted – are deliberately contested, in the latter case via ‘a whole new ball game’ of baffling dark arts and collapses, resets, free kicks and penalties.
Former league players seeking to make their way in union can easily get frustrated. Used to fast action and frequent opportunities to get the ball, in union they have to get accustomed to spending five to ten minutes at a time without the ball coming anywhere near them.
It can be a tough old game, making the switch from league to union.
Only ten days ago, Sam Burgess – a big man at 6 foot 5 and 18 stone, in union capable of playing either in the back row or at centre – confessed that, even after 6 games of union, he hadn’t got a clue as to what happens at the line-out.
I’m not a cynic as regards league converts to union. Generally, I’m supportive of them. However, nobody should be under the illusion that the transition is easy.
Including last night’s game against Irish Wolfhounds, Sam Burgess has now played 7 or 8 games of union and I have watched perhaps 5 of them on television. Given his size, dynamism and outstanding ‘larger than life’ character, there are not a few coaches and fans – some of them in the England camp – who are hoping he can bring his exceptional skills to bear in the 15-man version of the game at some point, if not within the next six months and in time to play a part in the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
Based upon what I’ve seen so far I am afraid that the wilder hopes and expectations of England fans are misplaced and doomed to disappointment. Burgess spent most of last night bursting with energy and keenness to get involved but (at this early stage of his union development) is still way out of his depth.
There’s a small gap between having to consciously work out what you’re supposed to be doing next and doing it instinctively, but it’s a significant one. At international level, it’s a Grand Canyon-sized chasm. For those who have played rugby union from birth everything is instinctive.
However, for someone like Burgess, who began in league and – unlike Jason Robinson, isn’t lightning quick – finding space in the confined mayhem of a union midfield is a problem. Two or three times yesterday he received the ball and was immediately grounded by tackles. This isn’t how things happen in league, in which you get time – a fraction of a second, mind, but time – to get up a head of steam before ever meeting the opposition defensive line.
Furthermore, and it is only natural, whenever he gets the ball, he’s looking to make a personal impact, a mark, on the game and tries to do too much, or too much too quickly, and cocks it up.
The England player who caught my eye was the classy fly half Henry Slade, who’s been playing most of his rugby this term at 12 (inside centre) for Exeter Chiefs. In my view he should already be in the England full squad in place of either Danny Cipriani or Stephen Myler.