Sam Burgess: Chewed Up and Spat Out

28

I don’t mean to be crude, but England’s campaign in the rugby world cup was one big cock up all round. It goes back to the ridiculous decision to appoint a coach with little pedigree on the back of two good performances and three mediocre ones in 2012 Six Nations.

If you put a guy with just two wins at premiership level in charge, you risk squandering your resources. Or in Sam Burgess’ case, abusing them.

Let’s just get one thing straight. Burgess is an excellent rugby player in the making. He just needed time to adapt and find his way. His physical prowess was never in question – he’s strong as an ox and a formidable presence on the field – but appreciating the nuances of a new code doesn’t happen overnight.

After watching Burgess close up in training, day in and day out, Bath’s vastly experienced coaches Mike Ford and Toby Booth decided Burgess was a flanker. England’s less experienced coaching staff thought differently. This was either arrogant or naïve. Neither is a particularly flattering look.

What’s worse, in denying Steffon Armitage and Nick Abendanon (the two best players in Europe in 2014 and 2015) the opportunity to play in the World Cup, Lancaster preached about the benefits familiarity and rewarding those who had been part of the group for a long time. Burgess was brought in to England’s World Cup squad at the last moment, at the expense of the deserving Luther Burrell, from the outside. Hypocrisy isn’t a particularly flattering look either.

Basically Burgess was put in an impossible situation. Lancaster, being out of his depth, didn’t fully appreciate the furore the league convert’s selection would cause. Not having much experience of top-level management, England’s coach didn’t realise how tough it would be for his new toy to make the transition to centre under enormous pressure and unbearable scrutiny.

In the build up to the World Cup, we kept hearing about the strength of Burgess’ character – how he was a natural leader and a man amongst boys. Unfortunately however, Lancaster’s super human was still, at the end of the day, human. He was incapable of doing the impossible: rescuing an England midfield that has been abject for over a decade.

I fear that Burgess’ unfortunate decision to return to rugby league demonstrates his humanity further. He must have been affected by all the criticism and the controversy. This decision, on the surface, seems like giving up. I doubt he would have returned to Australia so quickly if he was still developing quietly at Bath, waiting for his opportunity at international level.

It’s all such a shame. English rugby isn’t exactly brimming with elite talent at the moment. Burgess’ premature departure means there will be one less world-class athlete for the new head coach to work with. That’s if there’s actually going to be a new head coach. Perhaps Burgess knows something we don’t.

James Morgan

28 Comments

  1. Let’s not forget Burrell was shattered by the demands of the Prem season – his performance had tailed off. There’s this fantasy going around that we were denied the second coming of Nonu by including Burgess.

    (I wouldn’t have picked Burgess myself, but after watching Argentina, Aus & NZ I’m bored of the pretence that England were at the races.)

    As for Burgess, we should be honest and admit there’s not much upside for him in staying in RU. The next WC is 4 years away and he’d be gambling that there would be no injuries etc. This WC has shown that the 6N isn’t particularly a world class competition, so why not go back to the money and lifestyle of South Sydney? And of course, there’s the outside chance he could help drag England RL to glory in 2017…

  2. Hi James,
    I know we differ on this one….
    I have a different take on this and see similarities with ECB and RFU.
    As much as people will say Burgess is a scapegoat, Lanny was also put in a very difficult position. The decisions referred to above, I believe, were forced upon him.
    – Lanny was told to play Burgess (an RFU funded experiment); and
    – Lanny was told not to pick the “French boys” to avoid an exodus.
    There’s a further argument about the strength of the fight between Lanny v RFU and Cheikh v Oz RFU but wouldn’t have a clue who fought what but you only have to look at the impact of the “French/Oz boys”
    It goes back to your article on lanny and Moores being similar…were they both happy to play with the cards dealt to them?

    We’ll never know how good Burgess would be especially as we haven’t been blessed with successful converts. Jason Robinson stands out as an example but I believe wingers/FBs have an easier job transferring whereas others have struggled. I’d hardly say Farrell made a success of it and appears even now to be an unhelpful influence in the coaching set up. I also don’t feel too sorry for Burgess, he has been financially well compensated for his time, no doubt secured another lucrative deal and one could even throw the accusation that he bailed when the going gets tough?

    Love the variety of articles now – keep up the good work mate!

    • Thanks Yorkie. Appreciate it 🙂

      I can imagine the RFU putting pressure on SL to involve Burgess, but I can’t imagine they said ‘he must start at centre against Wales’. It’s that decision that really hurt both Burgess and the team. Starting a key match with a 10, 12 & 13 that had never played before was crazy imho. I just think it’s a shame. I would’ve loved to see Burgess develop as flanker over time. He’s such a good athlete I think he could have prospered in a Robshaw free back-row.

    • Pete Cresswell on

      “– Lanny was told to play Burgess (an RFU funded experiment); and
      – Lanny was told not to pick the “French boys” to avoid an exodus.”

      Burgess was an experiment funded by Bath rather than the RFU (the other clubs would be screaming blue murder if RFU cash was involved, though Lancaster may well have been told to play him). I’m no fan of Bath (salary-cap dodging moral cheats) but fair play to Bruce Craig for getting £800k from Burgess as a release fee – Bath opted to not re-sign a good flanker in Carl Fearns because of signing Burgess so they’re short a player at start of season

      The no-foreign players is imposed on Lancaster due to the deal between the RFU and the Prem clubs, who want to minimise the talent they’re losing to big money in France – the RFU have agreed to it in return for extra access to the English based players. And in fairness, a no-foreign-based player policy works for New Zealand

  3. I’m not really a League fan, but did catch a little of the Eng NZ game the other day and it appears to me that RL rather than RU is the place to be right now given England’s promise. Seems like a bit of a no-brainer for Burgess.

  4. I agree with Yorkie, for a League player coming into Union their best bet is being on the wing or at full back. I’ve only seen one English player who I felt could have made the grade at Union for England at centre and that would have been Gary Connelly. Sadly he was just part of an experiment and it was a shame he was not made to stay on longer.
    That said I would love to have seen Ellery Hanley in his prime at Union, surely he would have been brilliant.

      • Offiah was a union convert.

        As mooted above, I’ve always thought the only successful converts from league will be in the back three. Union is only superficially similar to league, and wing/fullback is the only place the games really crossover.

        • Pete Cresswell on

          Brad Thorn succeeded as a convert in the forwards – in fact (though Jason Robinson and SBW run him close) he’s probably the most successful convert from RL of all.

          • He did, and he somewhat exemplifies the point. He’s pretty much the only one.

            If people convert very young it can be done, otherwise I think you’re always playing catch-up. Even SBW – who had a background in union as a kid and had an apprenticeship in France – has always really been a bench player.

          • Pete Cresswell on

            Bench player is slightly harsh on SBW, at times he’s been the 2nd best #12 in the world, but stuck behind #1 in Nonu. Who did play RL as a schoolboy too. SBW did need 3-4 years to learn his trade in Union mind, and it took him some time to re-learn the skills on his 2nd stint too.

        • I have to admit that I don’t particularly like rugby league and don’t watch it much! I was very young when Offiah was around.

          • You’re missing out.

            It touches upon something, though: I suspect that 99% of people discussing Burgess in England either have no thoughts about league at all, or view it with a certain disdain (based on watching 30 seconds of a league game thirty years ago).

            As such, I think very few people realize quite how impressive and unusual Burgess really is.

    • Northern Light on

      A warrior? Hmmm, someone who runs back to money and familiarity at the first sign of trouble in his pretend new career? Nah.
      Wanted to play in a World Cup. Was given assurances. Swapped codes. Didn’t work out. Didn’t feel able to do the hard yards and cultivate the patience to wait for the next one and perhaps have a proper impact.
      Doesn’t seem like a warrior to me.

      • Northern Light, your comments were echoed on radio 5 tonight by some. His progress was questioned and ability to fit into a role.
        He was also largely ridiculed for signing a 3 year contract and then pulling the eject chord the moment he comes up against a challenge.
        One of the guys said how much Bath must be kicking themselves if they had waited and been able to afford Armitage as opposed to Burgess.

        • They’re getting a massive compo payment from Souths. They’ll be able to afford whoever they like.

          Has Armitage ever actually indicated he wants to play at Bath or anywhere in England? He seems pretty happy in France.

          Armitage was born in the Caribbean and grew up in France, where he started playing rugby. I’m not sure why he’s considered an England player at all.

  5. As a Souths member I’m delighted, although it’s tinged with sadness.

    Burgess put up with a ridiculous amount of crap from before he even arrived in the country. Flick through the Telegraph sport section, for instance, and look at the (daily!) articles. English rugby failed at almost every level: development, the AP, selection, management, vision, and it resulted in an utterly shambolic World Cup. That the most junior member of the squad (who was completely uninvolved in union and its malaise) has become the focus for so much of the discussion about our failure is further proof – if any were needed – of how deluded and out of touch a lot of people in rugby really are.

    Burgess is in an odd position. He’s on the verge of being an all-time great rugby league player. Peter Sterling described him as the best Englishman who ever played in Australia (and one of the very best fullstop). He can go back to league and become an Immortal. On the other hand, he could put up with more of this crap for the next four years in the hope of playing in another complete failure of a world cup – look at the make up of the review panel; has anyone really got any faith that things will change for the better?

    Andy Farrell must pose an interesting example: he was a genuinely great rugby league player who spent the last five years of his sporting life as an extremely mediocre rugby union player (it’s interesting going back to the articles from when he converted – Saracens thought he was a blindside, England played him as an inside centre…), and what should have been an outstanding legacy is ultimately tinged with disappointment and failure. Burgess surely can’t help but see a warning in that.

    In the end, it’s his life and he has to make the decision which suit him best. We’ve all walked away from jobs which were doing us more harm than good. Without Burgess as a convenient distraction, England and the RFU may have to face up to their greater failures.

  6. There are some insightful posts here from people who know a lot more about rugby (both codes) than I do, but I don’t entirely agree with the broad sentiment running through these threads and most of the media that Burgess himself is blameless. Sure, ultimately the buck stops with the management, who made a number of bone-headed decisions that threw all England’s preparations out of the window and almost certainly cost them a place in the quarter finals. They should all have been fired the day RWC finished, without the nonsense of a “Review” by loads of people called Ian. Andy Farrell, having followed a spookily similar path to Burgess, is particularly culpable. But I think the people who have been pointing out that England did ok when Burgess was on the pitch are missing the point, even though it’s true. It’s not so much what happened on the pitch, but the effect he had off it. Most people in some walk of life will have been through the experience of being inserted into a team and realising they don’t fit. You feel it, the team feels it, but people very rarely say anything. Everyone just goes on being uncomfortable, and if the problem isn’t addressed splits and factions start to form in a previously tight unit. I’m sure this is what happened with England and Burgess. Of course it’s the management’s first job to deal with this sort of thing (and what sets apart the greats like Shankley and Sir Alex in football) but when the management failed him, Burgess should have been big enough to read the signs and deal with it himself. He’d have felt the discomfort, and, in his heart of hearts, known he wasn’t ready, but his ego wouldn’t allow him to go to the management, say so, and withdraw for the good of the team. 20% of the blame lies with him in my view.

    • ” I’m sure this is what happened with England and Burgess”

      Blimey, well you know more than the rest of us.

      I don’t think anyone’s said Burgess is entirely blameless, I think it’s more the feeling that blaming SB for the World Cup debacle is like blaming the steward on the Titanic for the ship going down. Lancaster’s errors were many, and they belonged to him, not the most junior member of the squad.

      “Of course it’s the management’s first job to deal with this sort of thing (and what sets apart the greats like Shankley and Sir Alex in football) but when the management failed him, Burgess should have been big enough to read the signs and deal with it himself.”

      Players can only put themselves up for selection and then try their hardest if picked. The rest is up to others. The day that the players start deciding who gets in the team chaos reigns – and can you imagine the circus if Burgess had been picked and then withdrew from the team by his own choice? C’mon, that would have been the end of England’s tournament right there.

      • Saying “I’m sure” (based on personal deduction) is the not the same as saying “I know” (which, of course, I don’t). But I do know a hell of a lot about team dynamics, albeit in a corporate rather than a sporting context, having managed teams all over the world. I’ve seen many teams fall apart in very similar circumstances to what happened with England, where someone comes in and no-one quite understands why, or what their role is. I’ve also seen a few instances where individuals have been selfless and smart enough to trigger a dialogue that addresses an awkward situation that management has failed to, for the good of the team (as well as, in the long run, themselves). Maybe Burgess did this, but I doubt it. It’s a conversation should have taken place well before the squad was picked, not after. If Burgess had played a longer game (perhaps converting the year after a World Cup rather than a year before…), I think he could have become a world-class back row forward in Union and been remembered as one of the great cross-code converts. Instead, whatever else he achieves in League and however unfair, in 20 years when you say his name, the response is likely to be “wasn’t he the bloke who stuffed up England’s World Cup then buggered off back to League?”. Inept management is everywhere and an easy target. He could have taken greater ownership of his career, and legacy.

        • Except this is all speculation. None of the England team has intimated any such thing.

          And it’s not a corporate environment. By its very nature, rugby teams feature an ever changing personnel. Corporate structures don’t change when someone twists an ankle or cracks a rib. Would you like to have a guess at how many players featured for England during Lancaster’s tenure?

          Several were league converts. Several were born overseas. Several got barred from the team for off-field reasons. Burgess was far from the most divisive pick. Far more concerning to team morale, surely, would be Owen Farrell? No one thinks he’s the best fly-half in England, and you can’t help but infer he owes his undroppable status to his father being the coach.

          Again, Burgess may have been ambitious hoping to play for England but he didn’t force anyone to pick him. He made himself available for selection, the same as every other player, and he did what was asked of him when he was chosen. This idea that he ‘knew’ he was bringing the team down and should have raised it with the management is just bizarre.

          If other players had a problem with him being selected, that’s really a problem for them, and something *they* should have raised. Or in the teams you’ve managed do people normally stay silent even though someone’s causing the team to fall apart, and just hope the problem person speaks up themselves?

          • Sometimes, though not often in Europe. Very common in Asia for team members to not speak up, especially in China in my experience. India too. They hope the management will sort it out, which of course they usually don’t…

            You’re right that sports team and the corporate world are very different in many regards, but many principles around human behaviour apply to both. The alpha-male, never-show-your-weaknesses attitude necessary to become a top sportsman certainly doesn’t lend itself well to expressing doubts and concerns, but I think that deep-down, Burgess would have felt uncomfortable. Mind you, I suppose I might be expecting him to be mature beyond his years to do what I suggested. He’s “only” 26, which is oldish for a sportsman but young in life. Get a mentor outside the entire coaching setup would have been my advice (someone like Jonathan Davies).

            My prediction is we’re going to see a steady stream of memoirs over the next few years about how the Burgess saga changed the whole atmosphere of the camp and destabilised it. No-one’s saying anything at present because they don’t know who the hell is going to be in charge come January. They can’t afford to take the risk.

            Farrell senior shouldn’t be anywhere near England’s coaching setup simply because of the conflict of interest you mention. It’s selfish and totally unfair on his son. As a father alone he should know better. Another example of an situation where someone could hold his hand up and say “actually, me being here isn’t helping…”.

            Thanks for not resorting to the personal abuse so common on message boards. I know you disagree, that’s fine.

  7. For all the talk of Burgess not being ready, he was actually one of the better players in an admittedly poor England team. And, in less than a year, to pick up man-of-the-match awards in two different positions for Bath isn’t too shabby either.

    Burrell is being portrayed as a martyr, but his inclusion wouldn’t have got England out of the group.

    Burgess clearly wasn’t at fault for the losses against Wales and Australia. That was poor discipline by the pack, poor decision-making by the almost-invisible captain and a substitution for substitution’s sake against Wales by the coaching team.

    However, he was a convenient target for the blowhards and now the code has lost him back to Rugby League, probably for ever. Given some of the nonsense printed and broadcast about him, I’m not even slightly surprised.

    • paul baldwin (@Paul_Baldwin) on

      Agreed – Burgess did ok. It was the lack of leadership on and off the pitch that killed us against Wales. Australia were just in a different class to us.

  8. Heard Burgess has signed a 3 year deal, wonder what the odds on a much publicised transfer to rugby union in 2018 as he targets a place in the Japan 2019 Rugby World Cup??
    After receiving a nice pay day and being handed a World Cup place on a plate, failing to deliver, he then runs when the going gets tough and signs for Leeds Rhinos as the Aussies think he’s past it?

  9. Having tried to read his sob story I have very little time for him now. His “speech” smacks of arrogance that he thought he could cross codes and be a top international player. When he realises he won’t be, he has decided to cut and run and chase his next pay cheque. Very easy for a player to cite family reasons but it’s his easy get out. He has also discredited himself by saying he could have taken the easy option and stayed in Union…utter bollocks…he has returned to a sport which involves running into a wall over and again all game (quote George Riley), a sport he is lauded at, in Oz, for a substantial pay cheque – sounds far easier than learning a new game.
    Stuart Hooper, a good decent honest bloke, appears to have lifted the lid on what Bath thought of him.
    Can’t think of a player who has divided the codes so much.

Leave a Reply