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Sam Burgess: English Rugby's Code-Switching Golden Boy

Sam Burgess only switched from Rugby League to Union 18 months ago. Now, he's preparing to represent England at the World Cup.

by Raj Bains
Sep 18 2015, 1:58pm

Photo by PA Images

It's easy to be cynical about the intentions of a player when they make the move from League to Union, and the issue of money is often quick to raise its head, especially from the code that's had another of their star products poached away. However, with Sam Burgess, talk of that nature was very minimal. In fact, he's received goodwill almost across the board since the announcement of his transfer to Bath all those months ago.

Burgess has always been different – what Malcolm Gladwell would likely call an 'outlier' – and there's always been an undeniable notion that in whatever he turned his hand to, he'd no doubt be a success. The combination of Burgess the player – the forward as quick and intelligent as a back, and a back as strong and tenacious as a forward – and Sam Burgess the man – humble, unassuming and family orientated – has created a unique beast. Perhaps most tellingly, Burgess went to Union with not only the best wishes and highest of hopes from League fans in England, but in Australia as well.

Since the start of his professional career at Bradford Bulls in the Super League, he's shown his ability to adapt his game, raise himself for big occasions and lead by example. His debut at 18 couldn't have come in a tougher fixture – being thrown in the deep end away in a West Yorkshire derby against Leeds – but he didn't look out of his depth for a second.

In his first full established season in 2007, Burgess was voted the best young player in the competition, and was called up to the Great Britain squad as a result. Typically, he scored in his first international appearance, and quickly became a worldwide overnight sensation at 19 due to a shoulder-led hit he put on rampaging Kiwi prop Fuifui Moimoi, dropping one of the most fearsome players in the game at the time like a sack of spuds.

More solid performances for both club and country across 2008 and 2009 cemented Burgess as one of League's brightest young talents, and rumours of his departure from a Bradford side on a downward spiral began picking up speed. Down in Australia, with their higher crowds and – perhaps more importantly – their higher salary caps, several clubs were said to be interested in a still extremely raw Burgess, and Bradford's financial troubles wouldn't deter them from selling.

Behind the scenes – quite literally – South Sydney Rabbitohs majority shareholder Russell Crowe (yes, that one) was doing his best to convince Sam and his mother Julie, between takes on the set of Robin Hood, that his club would be the best place to be playing his rugby the next season, rather than a Manly side that had already launched a bid. An act of god intervened, with rain delays effecting the day's filming, which allowed the trio more time than was expected to sit down and become more familiar with one another. A mutual respect was quickly formed, and soon after hands were firmly shaken.

Having played in a competition as fierce as Super League from such a young age, Burgess had to develop key attributes as a player much more quickly and decisively than he would've done coming up more slowly through a longer spell in the academy. To play Super League well, a player has to be at the peak of his fitness, mentally very tough, tactically aware of the game and exceptional in both attack and defence. Burgess was, for example, told he would not even be considered for first team selection until the conditioning team had seen him benchpress his own weight.

In the English game, the pace of the play is relentless, the physicality is brutal, and the pressure from fans on players at the bigger clubs is immense. Without a moments hesitation, Sam Burgess had taken that all in within his stride before his 20th birthday. Perversely, had Burgess been touch older, he may never have become the player he is today. Rugby League in this country, even at the highest level, wasn't even remotely close to being a professional sporting environment until around a decade ago, with players previously ignorant to the commitment the game required away from the training field.

Leeds Rhinos legendary captain Kevin Sinfield – himself now due to become a Union convert – explains it best when he talks about what he experienced coming through the ranks at Headlingley, and the changes that took place over the first few years he was involved in the first team. Unaware, or perhaps just pig ignorant, professional players were training hard during the day, but left all aspects of their professionalism at the clubhouse door. There was an established and successful drinking and fast food culture present, strength and conditioning wasn't a priority, and players were essentially behaving as if they were part-time players.

However, during the early 2000s – when Sinfield was first made captain at Leeds – the culture around the sport began to change. Conditioning coaches were hired, and players were properly educated on nutrition and fitness, and how they should behave in their own lives to help further their performances and careers. Rather luckily, Burgess came in to the sport at the perfect moment, and his attitude towards his own professionalism has a lot to do with the culture surrounding the sport shifting dramatically at the time.

Having moved to the NRL, the demand, expectation and pressure on Burgess heightened in every aspect of his life. Not only was he one of few Englishmen plying his trade in a league dominated by the finest players the southern hemisphere has to offer, but he had a new celebrity status in Sydney, with Australian rugby league a much bigger deal than back home. His progression in the NRL was slow at first, with the 'all or nothing' way in which he plays the game taking a heavy toll on his body.

Burgess threw himself into runs and tackles with little concern for his own well being – much as he still does to this day – and injury problems started to become an unfortunate regularity. A blessing in disguise, Burgess took on his own private conditioning work during a longer period of rehab and came back from a lengthy lay off in the shape of his life: fitter, stronger and faster than he'd ever been, he was fully intent on giving back to the South Sydney Rabbitohs fans that had always backed him.

Before long, Sam was joined by his three brothers at the Rabbitohs, and the Burgess family quickly became an NRL sensation, both on and off the field. The popularity that Luke, Sam, George, Tom and their mother Julie experienced coincided perfectly with Sam hitting the best form of his career to date, with the additional comfort having his family around provided clearly translating to his performances. Regularly swapping positions between prop, second row, loose forward and brief stints at centre, opposition teams were at a loss as to how to stop a man with his blend of size, speed, skill and tenacity.

All young rugby players from both codes are taught an early lesson about never taking a backward step, and never yielding. That same lesson may as well be taught in years to come by simply showing youngsters footage of Burgess at his best.

True to form, in his final season in Australia Burgess swept the board, winning just about every individual honour possible. Leading the Bunnies on from the front, South Sydney became NRL Premiers for the first time in 43-years, with Burgess putting in yet another Man of the Match performance in the Grandfinal – an achievement made all the more impressive after it came to light that he'd broken his cheekbone and dislodged his eye socket making the very first tackle of the game. Burgess quite literally gave his blood, sweat and tears for the club, the fans and his teammates, and you can't help but believe him when he says that he doesn't regret any of it for a second.

With his place in the England squad in mind, it's also worth taking into account the tournament experience that Burgess has internationally, having already competed in a World Cup on home soil. He was exceptional in an England league side that grew into their own home tournament in 2013, crashing out in heartbreaking circumstances in the dying seconds of a semi-final against New Zealand, a game that should have really been seen out.

What he'll have learnt – away from the crushing disappointing of what it's like to fall short so close to the finish line – is how to behave in a tournament environment, what to expect from specialised training camps, and how best to stay focused during that period. Despite the constant analysis and theorising as to why exactly he's been chosen to be a part of the squad going in to the World Cup, the fact that he'll be more than ready for everything that'll be thrown at him, both on and off the field, must have been a consideration.

Success, of course, isn't down to just ability alone. There are always players who have the very basic ingredients required to become a top professional, but lose their way because their application and mentality aren't befitting of somebody willing to challenge themselves and push their limits as far as they can go. Sam Burgess is single-minded and driven in a way that his peers can rarely compete with, and he manages to marry that with a level of natural modesty, charm and charisma that helps endear him to the public, and most likely the selectors, too.

The way he forcefully strives for success in his professional life can be compared to somebody like Cristiano Ronaldo, who, despite being rather less likeable than Burgess tends to be, is another athlete who has undeniably elevated himself above most of his peers through hours of hard work, and the development of a winning mentality.

The humble nature of Burgess is much more than just a PR moulded front, though. After his parents' separation while he was still a teenager, Sam stayed with his father and hero Mark, and was by his side for the entirety of his life-ending battle with motor neurone disease. At only 17-years old, while juggling a burgeoning first-team career with the Bradford Bulls, he rose to the challenge of being his father's primary carer at home. He's spoken about how it felt to carry his father up and down flights of stairs as his health deteriorated, and how, to some extent, his relocation to Australia was a symbolic fresh start.

If there's only one thing Burgess puts before his career, it's his family, and nobody can deny him that. To this day, Mark Burgess remains an honorary member of South Sydney Rabbitohs at the behest of Russell Crowe, and the seat beside him at the ANZ Stadium is left empty as a sign of respect.

With the World Cup in mind then, what England have in their ranks is not only an exceptional player, but an exceptional man, too. There are, no doubt, some technical aspects of his game he still has to tweak in order to fully fall in to line with the 15-man version of the game, but none of those are all that drastic. His ball carrying style and arm has been adapted to anticipate mauls and steals, and he's learnt how to take a tackle in such a way that recycling the ball doesn't become a rain of studs or a chore. His penchant for sweeping onrushing attackers off their feet with a swift swing of his shoulder has been completely eradicated, and he's learnt to always be seen by the officials to be using his arms to grapple in a tackle, avoiding any unnecessary penalties.

His temperament has been stage managed well, without removing the core emotion from his game. After all, what constitutes a stern talking to from a referee in League for aggressive behaviour can often lead to a card of either colour in Union, which will obviously need to be avoided. These are things, alongside the more nuanced rules of the game, that Burgess is likely to pick up fairly quickly in the safety of a training field, and he's already shown a sponge-like ability for learning new tricks.

One of the largest discussions surrounding Burgess since his move to Bath – which remains somewhat unresolved – is deciding which position he will best settle in and suit playing. From what we already know, it's imperative that Burgess is given as much time with ball in hand as possible, and is stationed in the best possible area for him to get through the maximum amount of defensive work. His highlight reel in Union – for both club and country – has been mainly defensive so far, and England will need to capitilise on his imposing figure.

However, with Union, and the nature of the way possession is recycled, forwards tend to get bogged down doing the dirty work on the deck at rucks and packing in at mauls, and that would be a waste of talent where Burgess is considered. For a warning of how mistreatment and mismanagement could lead to the waste of a supreme talent moving from League to Union, one doesn't need to look much further than Andy Farrell, who's well positioned in the England set-up to help steer anyone away from making repeat mistakes.

That said, if his role is limited and possession doesn't find him regularly, then his effectiveness will be greatly harmed. A lot of comparisons have been drawn between Burgess and Sonny Bill Williams, and rightly so, but there are intelligent, nuanced elements to they way Burgess plays and the rugby brain he has that Sonny Bill has always lacked. Burgess is the man you look to for leadership by example, and he can't do that if he's in a position where his effect on the game is limited. England appear to have settled on playing him at centre, rather than the flanking role he was given at Bath, with the possibility that his appearances will be initially made as a super-sub.

Sam Burgess is a man ready to become a superstar in a second sport, and you can bet your last penny that he'll be doing everything in his power to be in the starting line-up for England at the soonest possible moment. In his short time in the game, especially at international level, Burgess has already become a pin-up for the RFU, which is a responsibility that won't be at all unfamiliar for him. Rugby League fans will be watching on with both pride and hope; proud of what has become of a player so loved by the code, and hope that playing in a World Cup may help scratch his Union itch, and he may one day return.

Special players like Sam Burgess don't come around at all often, and it's a privilege to see them in their prime. He's a talisman, he's totemic, he's iconic, he's inspirational, and now, England, he's all yours – just make sure you do your best to enjoy him while he's around.

@bainsxiii

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