Well, what a kerfuffle all that was! This must have been one of the weirdest year’s in Sam Burgess’ life and playing career. The outcome, his return to Rugby League, has had an air of inevitability surrounding it for a few months now. Was he set up to fail? How could someone possibly be expected to learn a brand new game and then go into a world cup as a leadership figure; the naivety is just unfathomable.
The greatest shame of it all, is that come Tokyo in 2019 he could and would have been a leader. He has the commitment, the drive and the ambition, thats how he made it as a superstar in rugby league. The whole saga has just been a mess.
When he arrived from South-Sydney, it should have been made clear to him he would not be in this world cup squad; instead, he is to fight for his place in the national squad after the tournament. That was the first error made. The second, and most calamitous was the lack of cohesion over what role he should play from the people who matter most. Mike Ford at bath tried him at centre before a swift move to the back-row where, unsurprisingly, he was starting to flourish for bath. In my opinion asking him to play centre for England is the biggest mistake in the coaching career of Stuart Lancaster. Unfortunately that is a mistake made of his own doing. There is no denying that Stuart Lancaster has done huge amounts for England rugby and restored some pride in the jersey. However, his inability to solidify a centre pairing is why he felt the need to play Sam Burgess at centre. From day one that decision was questioned. It was just not a fair ask, but how could someone reject the offer to represent England in a world cup. The sheer contrast in the positions made it a nye on impossible task. Admirably, again in my opinion, I think Burgess performed as well as he possibly could have in the situation. His defensive effort against Wales made clear to everyone why there was so much time, effort, and of course money, invested in his move to union.
I think the most worrying thing about this whole episode, is the incredible amount of Déjà vu. Exactly the same happened with Andy Farrell when he moved from league. Saracens played him in the back row; Brian Ashton’s England, in the centres. The same occurred, his contribution was limited as he couldn’t make an impression and he subsequently retired. What possessed him not use his own experience and put Burgess in the back row, or in fact, omit him from the squad? He did the opposite, he fought for his selection and that he should play at centre. Andy Farrell has been a great aid to Stuart Lancaster but I think following this debacle, that maybe it’s time he stood down.
This inability to learn from their surroundings and what is going on around them or has happened previously has unfortunately been a recent and all too familiar trait in English rugby. We don’t learn from the the way the southern hemisphere play their rugby, we don’t even look at what Ireland or Wales are doing and try and adjust, and we seem to have a fear of moving forward. Nothing marked this more then to see Owen Farrell walk out ahead of George Ford to face Wales. That was a step backwards for English Rugby, we need to go the other way. Unfortunately we will be doing it without Sam Burgess who could of, and most probably would have been a superstar.
A last point to add is that fans of rugby union has been a let down too. People have blamed Burgess for England’s failure and used him as the scapegoat. I think the punishment and stick he is receiving is unnecessary. Its not his fault he was put in the position he was and he stood up and did his best and played hard, and did a heck of a good job for someone who arguably shouldn’t have been there. I think he deserves respect and an apology. I don’t blame hime one bit for going back to Rugby League and I wish him every success in the coming years.
His loss from union is a shame, but unfortunately, I don’t think his career in union could have recovered from this momentous screw up. All I can say is good luck Sam! I hope that this time English Rugby really will sit up and learn from it’s mistakes. We’re at a low point in our prestigious rugby history, arguably the lowest point. Now it’s time to put it behind us and use the past year as a driving force and motivation to come out and be a great rugby nation once more.