Rugby league great ‘Slammin’ Sam’ Burgess was unveiled yesterday as a Bath rugby union player amid a degree of media hoo-hah almost matching that for the build-up to the imminent autumn internationals period in the Northern Hemisphere.
I am as intrigued as anyone about this switch, especially since Burgess has made it with the express intention of potentially playing for England – presumably even as early as in next year’s Rugby World Cup if he can – and not without deliberation.
According to the interview clips I have heard and read he has been thinking about it for about eighteen months, to the extent that he decided in advance to make the just-finished Australian rugby league season his last.
As probably the biggest property in world Rugby League, he then signed off in style by leading his team the Rabbitohs to victory in the NRL’s Grand Final and in the process – despite suffering a broken cheekbone and eye socket in the second minute – won both the ‘man of the match’ Clive Churchill medal and Rugby League’s International Player of the Year award.
Although the two sports began as one, they split in 1895 over the issue of ‘broken time’ payments, a move that resulted in their differences being defined most starkly by the fact that League was ‘rugby played for money’ and Union was supposed to be amateur. Once Union turned professional – by coincidence exactly 100 years later – that essential difference was removed and it was always likely that League players might be tempted to try their luck in Union, which in global terms is an appreciably bigger sport.
Nevertheless, the path from Rugby League to Rugby Union – although now a well-trodden one – is no easy matter. I should estimate the proportion of successes to failures as 20:80, due to a range of factors.
One of them is the fact that too many League men, even the most talented and determined like Andy Farrell, attempt the jump too late, i.e. after their best playing days are over. The second is the thorny issue of getting to grips with the intricacies of Union. All would-be converts, used to the simpler structure and rhythms of League, take time to ‘understand’ the complexities of Union and, for many of them, these never become instinctive or ‘second nature’.
‘Explosive physicality’ is rarely an issue for players either going from League to Union, or indeed vice versa. But there are different demands upon the players’ stamina and the types of strength they deploy. The dividing line between backs and forwards in League is tiny – there are no line-outs and scrums are non-contested affairs used solely as a means to re-start play. There are no rucks or mauls or any of the attritional, team-work, aspects of forward play that exists in Union – save in the immediate aftermath of a collision or tackle.
Because it is much more of a man-on-man contest, the levels of all-round individual skills in League (I’m referring to such things as passing, tackling and open ground running lines and angles) are probably greater.
I have to confess that I’m a Union girl myself, condemned as such by my family upbringing a background.
Whereas the bulk of League players could play in most positions, I like the fact that Union is a game in which participants of all sizes can flourish. You get the ‘fat boy, piano shifters’ amongst the tight forwards for the scrums, the elongated giants of the second row for the line-out jumping … at scrum half, the noisy jockey-sized minnows … and out wide the clean-limbed ‘pretty boys’ or (as legendary England back-rower Mickey Skinner had it) ‘girls’ – the slick-running, supposed non-tackling and averse to physical contact – backs.
Some of those descriptions have blurred and smoothed as Union evolves – for example, these days Union outsides now have to be great tacklers on top of everything else – but the traditional perceptions remain.
Sam Burgess has much going for him. At 6 feet 5 inches and 18 plus stone, he’s a great athlete and League rugby player. He’s only 25, so not yet even in his prime. He’s acknowledged by all who know him to be a giant of a character. Judging by the radio interview with him I heard yesterday, he comes across as a straightforward and very humble guy. He is looking forward to the challenge of playing Union and plainly accepts that he’s got to learn an entirely new sport and make the Bath first team before he can even think about making the England squad.
Let nobody under-estimate the size of Burgess’s task. Precious few League players have made it to the very top in Union – in the Northern Hemisphere Jason Robinson is probably the best example, but you could also point to Jonathan Davies, although he was Welsh and a great Union player before he went to League and then back – whilst the world is littered with outstanding League exponents (e.g. Henry Paul, Shontayne Hape, Chev Walker and Joel Tomkins – to name but four) who tried and ultimately failed.
Then again, from the Southern Hemisphere, we shall shortly be watching former League greats Australia’s full-back Israel Folau and New Zealand centre Sonny Boy Williams plying their trade in the Union autumn internationals in Europe.
Can Sam Burgess match their achievements and make the England squad for next year’s Rugby World Cup? Nothing is impossible, but we must remember than Folau and Williams have now both been playing Union for three years minimum to reach where they are. In my opinion, Burgess will have less than four months to go from ‘never having played a Union game’ – his mother, joining his Radio Five Live interview yesterday, admitted that she’d never seen a Union game in the flesh – to making an England Six Nations 23-man match day squad [he’s unlikely to play for Bath before January because of his required recovery period from the injuries sustained in the NRL Grand Final].
Barring a catastrophic injury situation – which is always possible of course – England head coach Stuart Lancaster would need his head examined if he selected Burgess for the World Cup squad on the basis of two or three appearances in England matches during the summer in the run up to the tournament.
Personally, I’d love Burgess to go all the way and become an England rugby union great.
However, exceptional as he is, I’d put the odds of him making the 2015 Rugby World Cup squad as no higher than 10:90.
I’d give him a 40:60 chance of becoming an England international at some point.
But – back to the top – the odds of him becoming an all-time England rugby union great like Jason Robinson? I’d take 20:80 on that.
Please be my guest and prove me wrong, Sam!