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.