The question on the lips of every Englishman vaguely interested in the oval ball is, “can we turn Sam Burgess into the greatest inside-centre since Will Greenwood – or perhaps ever?”
To even begin to contemplate this outlandish question, more than a few steps have to be taken backwards – something the man in question is not used to doing himself.
Yes, Burgess succeeded in taking the brave leap to rugby league’s global hotbed at the age of just 20. Yes, Burgess became the first Englishman to win the Rugby League International Federation Player of the Year award. Yes, Sam Burgess inspired the South Sydney Rabbitohs to their first NRL title in 43 years, playing 79 minutes with a smashed face and still winning the Clive Churchill Medal – the first non-Australian to do so.
But, as of yet, he has not had the chance to do anything in rugby union.
Perhaps we should listen to the man’s own opinions before forming ours. The pressure he speaks of comes from within, a pressure first and foremost to win the respect of his Bath teammates and to win a place in their starting XV. By his own admission, he is at the bottom of the pile and, while his opinion will be valued, Head Coach Mike Ford makes the decision where Burgess fits in best at Bath, not the other way around.
In switching codes, he follows the footsteps of great success stories, like Jason Robinson, Israel Folau and Sonny Bill Williams; but there are also the flops – Henry Paul, Andy Farrell and Chev Walker. Burgess can learn a lot from his Bath teammate and fellow England hopeful Kyle Eastmond, who made the switch in 2011.
As England Head Coach Stuart Lancaster has pointed out, it will take Burgess a long time to learn the intricacies of Union, and the injury-enforced delay to his Bath debut could be a blessing in disguise.
“The biggest things he will have to get his head around are the dos and don’ts in the contact area – the decision-making,” said Lancaster’s right-hand man Andy Farrell. “But I’m sure he will take everyone to a new level through his skill and his competitive nature.”
At 6’5” and 18 stone, the Yorkshireman is bound to make an impact. His hard-hitting approach and never-say-die attitude are attributes that certainly transcend the two codes, but will that be enough to turn him into a World Cup calibre player in little over 10 months? You would hope it takes more than that.
Jason Robinson was a surprise inclusion in the 2001 Lions tour squad after a handful of cameo appearances and one start in England’s winning Six Nations campaign earlier that year. He had made the switch to union in November 2000 and played all three Lions Tests in Australia, scoring 10 tries on the tour, including two in the Tests.
“The first time I took the ball into a ruck, I got kicked to bits,” Robinson explained.
“That made me present the ball back a lot better. I think Sam will be a quick learner. He’s going to come in, not as this superstar from the NRL but as a Yorkshire lad who loves rugby. He’s got a new challenge.”
He will have to learn very fast if he is to win a place in Lancaster’s World Cup squad. The difference between Burgess and Robinson is pressure. Robinson walked into a winning side with a glut of quality backs; Burgess’ England position is up for debate before he has even tasted the turf at the Recreation Ground.
“The way we are trying to play at Bath will suit Sam’s style and Sam’s skill-set,” Ford said.
“More than half the rugby league players to come across have been signed for what they can do in league, then changed as a union player. I’m pretty adamant that one thing I won’t do is change Sam. The game-plan will suit him and the 14 other people on the field. It’s not just about Sam.”
It is likely he will make his first appearance for Bath in mid-December at flanker, leaving Lancaster little chance to get a look at him in the centres before Six Nations selection swings around. And with Eastmond, Manu Tuilagi, Luther Burrell, Billy Twelvetrees, Brad Barritt, Jonathan Joseph and Henry Slade all jostling for the coveted No.12 jersey, Burgess is at the back of a long list.
Burgess is only 25 years of age. If his switch is successful, there will still be time for him to represent England in a World Cup if not in 2015. Lancaster is too wise to upset the balance because the 2014 International Rugby League Player of the Year is after a new challenge. Undoubtedly he comes with high expectations, but as long as Burgess continues to act as he is now, listening only to his own pressure and carrying himself in the right fashion, he has every chance of becoming an England great – one day.