Stuart Lancaster’s gamble on Sam Burgess hasn’t worked, and while the former may lose his job the latter must be given time to excel in the back-row.
Comprehensive defeats, such as the 33-13 loss to Australia, demand imminent change. For failing on the biggest stage and a repeatedly confused strategy concerning selection, coach Lancaster must pay the ultimate price.
His greatest gamble, however; shouldn’t be abandoned. Less than a year since his switch from rugby league with the South Sydney Rabbitohs, Burgess has already been involved in a Rugby World Cup. His performances, though not poor, have been largely underwhelming and to prevent the wasting of such a mercurial talent England must change their plan.
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Bath coach Mike Ford has reportedly confirmed he will play Burgess at number six next season and blindside flanker must be his position from now. Ford is clearly determined to play him there and it simply isn’t possible for any player to play in the back-row for his club, and centre internationally.
Starting the Yorkshireman at 12 against Wales was a huge decision by Lancaster; classifying it as a gamble is inaccurate as the selection was made to ultimately nullify Jamie Roberts, rather than to cause Wales problems. The Bath player performed okay, showing his physicality in both attack and defence, but in unison with Brad Barritt nullifying the threat of England’s back-three.
Gordon D’Arcy’s has said it took him three years to feel comfortable at inside-centre, following his own conversion from fullback, highlights just how difficult a position it is. That isn’t to say blind-side flanker isn’t, but having played there for half of last season, including a Premiership final, Lancaster’s choice to play him in the midfield was bold.
Throughout the World Cup England lacked effective ball-carriers in the pack. Aside from Tom Youngs and Ben Morgan or Billy Vunipola, England’s forwards have been easily stopped behind the gain line when carrying, subsequently hampering the backs ability to pose a threat.
Playing Burgess at six in this respect would make a significant difference. With his immense power and offloading ability, the 26-year-old poses a real threat with the ball whilst providing a link with the backs.
This threat combined with his intangible qualities as a leader could make him a central figure in England’s recovery from this World Cup.
Selecting Burgess in the back-row for Saturday’s dead rubber against Uruguay would be admitting a mistake and therefore won’t happen, however the Six Nations opener against Scotland should be used to reassert the Bath player’s immense potential.
Tom Wood performed well in the tournament’s opener against Fiji, but the Northampton man will never be a world-class blind-side. Burgess with time and faith, leading to consistent selection has the potential to be.