Who’s to blame for Sam Burgess’ exit?
If you thought that English rugby’s reputation could not sink any lower following an embarrassing Rugby World Cup campaign then think again.
Sam Burgess’ decision to turn his back on rugby union and return to league just one season into a headline-grabbing three-year deal with Premiership side Bath has invited yet more ridicule.
Burgess packed his bags citing that “my heart is just not it” in a damning farewell that reflects badly on the player, the coaches who were charged with engaging and harnessing his ability – and the sport itself.
A highly prized athlete with the potential to inspire a generation has slipped through rugby union’s fingers having failed to be inspired sufficiently himself over the course of his brief sojourn in the 15-man code.
Many were quick to turn on Burgess following the announcement that he would re-sign with his former side South Sydney Rabbitohs – including Bath head coach Mike Ford.
“All I know is that he didn’t have the stomach to see out his contract,” said Ford. “For me this was the time to roll his sleeves up and become the player that I thought he could be and he chose not to.”
Those sentiments were echoed by Burgess’ Bath and England team-mate George Ford – “A lot of lads would die for this club” – and the anger felt within the rest of the squad led to club captain Stuart Hooper advising him not to attend training to say his goodbyes.
Many would also have you believe that Burgess was largely to blame for England’s early exit from the World Cup with his presence in the squad and in particular his selection for the defeat against Wales seen as key factors in the host nation’s demise.
Those assessments are just as harsh as Mike Ford’s character assassination.
Burgess’ performance against Wales may not have been spectacular but it was solid on a day when many others failed to deliver their very best.
Similarly, he also cannot be blamed for his rapid and premature elevation to the Test match stage – that decision was Stuart Lancaster’s and it was a gamble he has since paid for with his own job.
But it could have been so different had it not been for an ill-conceived and poorly played recruitment plan.
After identifying Burgess as a target, the Rugby Football Union was prepared to pay the transfer fee that would free him from his contract with the Rabbitohs.
They then planned to invite the Premiership clubs to bid for his services and in return they would demand a hands-on role in his development in order to assess and then hopefully ready the player for the challenge of a World Cup.
But accusations of favouritism towards some clubs forced them to withdraw their offer to pay the transfer fee and with it went any right to a say in Burgess’ playing future.
Bath eventually stumped up the transfer fee and bankrolled his lucrative contract – reportedly worth £500,000 a year – and by doing so they had the right to ignore any requests from England as to where Burgess should play.
The conflict of interest that created would not serve anyone well.
Bath clearly had the right to decide where he would be most valuable for them and tried him first at inside centre – where England hoped he would emerge as a real threat – before he found what was deemed a more suitable home at blindside flanker.
However, England would not be swayed with Lancaster satisfied with his back-row stocks and keen to bolster his midfield options.
Burgess’ subsequent selection in the World Cup squad as an inside centre raised more than a few eyebrows – especially given the fact that established internationals such as Luther Burrell, Kyle Eastmond and Billy Twelvetrees were cast aside as a result.
It was out of character for Lancaster who to that point had built a reputation for meticulous planning but appeared to veer away from that calculated approach and get swept up in the exciting potential that Burgess offered.
The selection of Burgess also appeared to go against Lancaster’s quest for a certain level of experience that he believed was a key to success – with just 21 appearances for Bath before being granted his first Test cap on the eve of the World Cup that was something Burgess simply didn’t have.
The fact that he earned a place among the elite in less than a year makes it even more frustrating that we will not get to see what would have produced had he been granted a sensible amount of time to deliver on his clear potential for greatness.
Perhaps understandably Burgess has refused to question how Lancaster treated him. “I thought the England environment was great and I’m a massive supporter of all the coaches and the squad,” he said before he packed his bags for Australia – and before Lancaster was shown the door.
“Lanny has been unfairly criticised, in my opinion. Maybe he is an easy target or people want him gone. That’s what I mean about people having agendas. I feel for him — he’s a great guy and I learned a lot from him as a coach.”
The RFU has also refused to point the finger at Bath with chief executive Ian Ritchie adamant that Burgess, “was trained and coached, as far as the RFU was concerned, in absolutely the right way."
In truth, they are all partly to blame for getting carried away with what Burgess could offer them instead of what they should have been doing for him.