Rumours concerning Sam Burgess’ return to rugby league are nothing new. Such was his success in Australia with the 13-man game that any fluctuation in form or degree of uncertainty during his year in union may have been met with inevitable reports.
However, with the Bath player given time off until November 2, predominantly to consider his future, the reality is a huge talent could be on the verge of being lost from English rugby union. Huge time and money have been invested in the hope of nurturing Burgess’ talent, however, much of this has been undermined by inconsistency in selection.
Bath coach Mike Ford has stated on record countless times that he believes the Englishman's skills and physicality are best utilised at blind-side flanker. With the west country club’s expansive brand of rugby, Burgess is relied upon to provide platforms over the gain line, and trusted to utilise his offloading whenever possible.
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After a brief and unsuccessful stint for his club at inside-centre, where his thunderous hits couldn’t conceal his general lack of timing and distributive skills, Burgess was moved into the forwards in order to influence the game as much as possible. What, then, was the wisdom behind selecting the Yorkshireman first in the initial 50-man squad and then the final 31 as a centre?
Stuart Lancaster’s future as head coach remains unresolved, however, one factor that won’t be helping his cause will be the experiment with Burgess. Concerned by the lack of leadership in his backline leading up to the World Cup, Lancaster marked the league convert as a man with big game experience. As someone not privy to the England training sessions, it isn’t possible to fully lament the eventual decision to include Burgess over Luther Burrell, but the England coaches must surely have been seeing something the public weren’t.
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Burrell, regardless of much that has been written in his absence, isn’t a great player, nor the answer to England’s midfield woes. His handling skills are basic and, unlike Brad Barritt, the Northampton Saint misses tackles regularly in defence. However, his experience in the England set-up and involvement in the last two Six Nations should have seen him given the nod. Yes, England required ‘X-factor’, but that was provided by Jonathan Joseph or the underused Henry Slade.
Burgess’s World Cup personally wasn’t a disaster. He performed well off the bench against Fiji, making ground in possession and getting offloads away, and though he and Barritt predictably stunted England’s attacking options against Wales, the Bath man did effectively deal with Welsh centre, Jamie Roberts.
Burgess faced daunting task
Regardless of the position he took up, this World Cup was always likely to come a year too soon for Russell Crowe’s 'sparkly-eyed man'. Learning a new sport within a year, despite Burgess’s outstanding pedigree in league, was a hugely daunting task, however, doing so, learning two vastly different positions, was near to impossible.
As the sole fundraisers of Burgess’ move to union, Bath had sole authority on where he should play. As the RFU failed to help facilitate the move, they were bound to follow Ford’s lead and should have trusted the former England defence coach’s judgement.
Amidst the myriad of mistakes Lancaster is answerable for, the Burgess situation is fairly low on the list of importance. Although the Bath man’s inclusion in the final squad is rumoured to have caused unrest amongst other players, England’s shortcomings in the scrum, at the breakdown and in remaining disciplined are far more relevant in explaining their early departure.
Lancaster cannot be held solely responsible. Credible stories have suggested Andy Farrell was instrumental in pushing Burgess’ case and, though these rumours reflect poorly on the head coach if he ignored his own instinct, it is worth considering that Lancaster wasn’t alone in seeing the former Bradford Bull as a back.
Position change failed for Yorkshireman
However, there is no escaping the fact the experiment has failed. While I have previously written that it must henceforth be altered, not abandoned with Burgess’s international future at six, the saga seems to be nearing its end.
Brad Walter, rugby league reporter for the Sydney Morning Herald, has stated Burgess’ move back to Syndey is an advanced position and while it may be delayed until the end of the season, a return does look inevitable.
Becoming rugby league’s greatest player again and playing alongside his brothers will be seriously tempting for Burgess. Much of the destabilising criticism he has received originates from the lack of continuity between his club and country, for which the latter should be held responsible.
Would a return to rugby league be the best for Sam Burgess's career? Give your opinion in the comment box below!