The deal is done. Sam Burgess is set to become the latest high-profile player to switch from rugby league to union later this year having been released from his contract with Australian NRL side South Sydney Rabbitohs and cleared to put pen to paper with England Premiership side Bath.
Excitement has been building for months in anticipation of his move and now the debate over his likely future in the 15-man code will intensify ahead of his arrival at the end of this year.
Make no mistake, Burgess is a supreme athlete. Labelled a ‘utility forward’ in league, ‘Slammin’ Sam’ is equally at home in the front row, second row or as a lock with his physicality a key aspect of his coach and crowd-pleasing game – both in defence and attack.
As much as his attributes would be suited to a back-row position in union, it would appear his future, at least short-term, is as a back and more specifically at inside centre with the England management having reportedly earmarked him for such a role. That would arguably be more viable and give him the best chance of fulfilling his dream of making the 2015 World Cup – the driving force behind his decision and the timing of his move.
The technical demands of flanker play, in the loose, at the breakdown and at the scrum and lineout, are deemed by many as too much to master in the few months he will have to prove himself ahead of the sport’s showpiece event but the distribution and decision-making and tone-setting responsibility that come with the No.12 shirt also present certain challenges – especially to someone used to the more direct and combative structure to league play.
Another convert and current England assistant coach Andy Farrell was another highly-regarded league loose forward who found a home at inside centre with Saracens and the international side having appeared suited for a back-row position only to fail to convince anyone in the role. Crucially, Farrell also had two years in the union code to get up to speed before going to the 2007 World Cup.
But despite his formidable reputation as a gifted player, there is no guarantee he will hit the ground running in the No.12 shirt and doubters have already questioned whether Burgess possesses the passing game and attacking instincts to excel at inside centre. Whatever position he assumes, with the decision set to be made for him, he will have to concentrate on mastering the required skill set – and fast.
A lot will depend on the coaches tasked with nurturing his talent and the players around him who will help guide his transition. Bath coach Mike Ford is no stranger to league – and no doubt nor the headline-grabbing Burgess – having represented Great Britain himself during his playing career before carving out an impressive reputation as a coach in union.
He is currently orchestrating the development of another league convert in the form of the exciting talent that is Kyle Eastmond who has already broken into the England ranks having crossed codes in 2011. And there is little doubt that Farrell will be a key sounding board while England coach Stuart Lancaster is sure to follow his progress very closely having thrown down the gauntlet when news of Burgess’ possible switch first surfaced.
“(As) with any player who wants to make a transition, it is going to be difficult in a short space of time,” the England boss said recently. “Given the competitiveness of the squad we’ve got at the moment, any new player coming in would have to earn their right – as everyone else has done – by playing high-quality, consistent, top-level Premiership rugby.”
There are clearly some sizeable hurdles standing between Burgess and World Cup selection – including the current midfield options that include the likes of Billy Twelvetrees, Brad Barritt and Eastmond – but surely it is the tight timeline that threatens his dream the most and maybe 2019 is a more likely target?
Should the Rabbitohs make the NRL play-offs this year – as they did last season – then Burgess may not be Premiership-bound until mid-October leaving him a couple of months to not only find his feet but also do enough to earn a place in England’s Six Nations plans. Factor in a break for a battered body and he has even less time to play with.
Should he force his way into Lancaster’s plans, then he would have to continue his very public education on the international stage with just a handful of fixtures, in arguably the most intense environment in the sport, in which to prove he deserves a place in the World Cup picture. If England were prepared to roll the dice, then he would have at most eight Test caps under his belt before the World Cup kicks off.
He has big match experience having played for Great Britain and England – most recently at last year’s Rugby League World Cup but would that be enough to prepare him for the increased pressure and attention that would come ahead of a the 2015 tournament?
It is a big ask. Perhaps the most high-profile league convert Sonny Bill Williams may have had only seven New Zealand caps to his name before he stepped onto the World Cup stage in 2011 but he had a much more extensive grounding in union from his time with Toulon, Canterbury and the Crusaders and was only a ‘bit-part’ player for the 2011 All Blacks, albeit an outstanding one.
The career arc of Australia’s Israel Folau offers more hope. The multi-talented former league and Aussie Rules player went from complete union novice to international superstar in the space of just 15 games – the first being his Super Rugby debut for the Waratahs, the last a two-try showing in his Test bow for the Wallabies against the British & Irish Lions last year.
So many questions yet to be answered. While there is a difference of opinion regarding what would be his best position in union, there is little doubt about his potential. “Sam has all the attributes to be probably whatever he wants to be,” insisted England rugby league coach Steve McNamara when asked recently to predict the likely outcome.
We will all find out later this year but making the switch is one thing – making the grade is another.
Do you think Sam Burgess will be ready to play for England at the 2015 RWC? Comments below…