What Ever Happened to the Likely Lad?

Out of the spotlight. King of the Rabbitohs - Sam Burgess

Out of the spotlight. King of the Rabbitohs – Sam Burgess

A friend of mine, a keen rugby union fan, recently asked me what I thought of the Sam Burgess saga. Nearly a year on from the rugby union world cup, where his selection was widely seen as a contributory factor in England’s early exit from the tournament, Sam is back in the NRL with the South Sydney Rabbitohs who are floundering near the bottom of the NRL ladder, and certain to miss the finals.

It’s quite a fall from grace given a year ago every second rugby (union) article in the media was focused on his apparent x-factor and mystical leadership qualities.

Before explaining what happened a few facts need to be established. As a rugby league player Sam Burgess has a justified reputation as one of the most effective forwards in the world. His physical size, 6 ft 5 or 1.96 m, and weight, 256 lbs or 116 kg, combined with an incredible engine allow him to play a full game of 80 minutes, without the regular spells on the interchange bench players his weight usually enjoy. He almost always runs for 150+ metres gained in a game from 20+ carries, and typically makes 30+ tackles.

Hard hitting and hard hit. Getting smashed by the Bulldogs

Hard hitting and hard hit. Getting smashed by the Bulldogs

He’s also fast when he gets into his stride and his generic rugby skills are good, if not outstanding. He rarely makes mistakes, has a good football brain and knows how to inject himself into the play if he sees a lazy defender or an uneven defensive line. His tackling is fearless, well-timed and frequently forces or intimidates opponents into mistakes, or leaves them physically degraded.

Although some allege he has returned a lesser player this year, this combination of attributes is still apparent in NRL 2016, as the stats show. He’s run for an average of 170 metres a game and made an average of 39 tackles, very good stats for an individual in a team running 14th on the ladder (out of 16).

So what happened in rugby union? Firstly Sam was always a forward, is a forward and always will be a forward. The jury was out in rugby union where he was touted for the curious position of inside centre, or number 12. I say curious as there’s no particular pattern as to who can play here. Styled as “second five-eighth” down in NZ, the position was considered a creative one. A stylish passing player required, with a decent kicking game. In the early post-professional era from 1995 onwards, this changed somewhat with the ‘crash-ball’ centre, like Australia’s Nathan Grey or latterly Wales’ Jamie Roberts, adopted by some teams. Burgess was presumably destined to be the latter type.

Playing at inside centre for Bath vs Wasps

Playing at inside centre for Bath vs Wasps

There were a couple of major problems with the idea of sticking Burgess in at 12. Firstly it negates his immense workrate. The 12 will often be involved in the game, depending on conditions, but not in the same way as a back-row forward. Secondly Burgess had never played in the backs and had no kicking game. Among modern 12s, only the aforementioned Roberts rarely put boot to ball. The model I guess was rugby league convert Sonny-Bill Williams whose unique offloading ability and rangy stride made him a very capable 12 for both the Waikato Chiefs, and the All Blacks, when Ma’a Nonu was injured. However SBW had played, and excelled, at centre in the NRL, and was a far more agile player than Burgess.

Burgess’s rugby union club Bath realized all this pretty early. While Burgess made some solid charges and thumping tackles at 12 in his early weeks of Aviva Premiership rugby, he struggled with the defensive aspects (where to be, rather than what to do), and had little experience as a second receiver and distributor. Bath also had two better players at 12, the lively incumbent Kyle Eastmond (also a rugby league convert but a stand-off rather than a forward) and long striding young tyro Ollie Devoto (now at Exeter and in the England squad).

So Bath shifted Burgess into the forwards at number 6, the least technical back-row position, and the one most suited to his physique and desire for involvement. At this point things started to go well for Burgess. He enjoyed a regular run in the team culminating in a solid display in the Bath’s victory over Leicester in the premiership semi-final. Although they lost the final to Owen Farrell’s Saracens juggernaut, Burgess again played well, and while not considered England material yet, it was acknowledged he had enjoyed a reasonably successful first season in his new code.

At this point fate intervened in the form of England coaches Stuart Lancaster and Andy Farrell who decided they wanted a big character in their England team, and Burgess fitted the bill. Having a number of favorites in a rather one-paced back row, including Captain Chris Robshaw at number 6, and the very average Tom Wood at 7, Burgess was shunted into the backs to again play 12. After an exhaustive training camp in Nevada, or Colorado, or somewhere Rocky Mountainish, Burgess was chosen for the final squad ahead of the much more experienced Luther Burrell (yet another rugby league convert). This engendered shock and hype on a tremendous scale, but a good outing in a warm up match against France alongside the sublimely talented Henry Slade, put him in the matchday 22 against England’s first world cup opponents Fiji.

The new lean Sam Burgess in England RU colours

The new lean Sam Burgess in England RU colours

The rest they say is history, but not quite as it was later written. On the plus side Burgess played well. He came on at 12 in the second half against Fiji and immediately made a difference, giving the England team some much needed go-forward ahead of the crunch game with Wales. On the minus side he frequently looked confused about where to be in defence, lumbering around like a demented polar bear when Fiji had the ball. Nor was his ball carrying as menacing as usual. Having definitely lost weight on the US training trip, he looked somewhat gaunt.

After the Fiji game incumbent fly-half and Bath teammate George Ford was dropped for Owen Farrell, and Burgess was put in at 12 alongside the dependable but pedestrian Saracen Brad Barritt, who usually played 12 himself.  It was here where you have to question the tactics. Lancaster picked a team without any tactical plan (apart from we must use Burgess as a battering ram) and the focus of selection was more on how to mitigate Burgess’s apparent defensive deficiencies (by picking Barritt), rather than how to attack and dominate the Welsh.

With Slade in the form of his life, he would have been a much better complement to Burgess than Barritt, and if either of their defence wasn’t up to the job, why were they both in the squad? As it happened the match played out with England dominating possession, but lacking creativity, and Wales always clung on, inspired by the brilliant fly-half Dan Biggar. Burgess was solid, and blunted the charges of Wales’ highly rated Jamie Roberts, before being substituted with 10 mins to go and England 7 points ahead. The rest, as they say, really is history with Wales scoring a runaway try, converting, and then winning with a penalty.

How that was Burgess’s fault is anybody’s guess, but the clamour for a scapegoat had already started to grow, ahead of a do or die game against Australia, who after 4 years or mediocrity had suddenly got their best XV available, and in form.

Lancaster duly shuffled the Titanic deckchairs once more, dropping Burgess to a pointless mascot role on the bench (Slade could cover 10, 12, 13, 15 and would ahve been a better choice), pushing Barritt to inside centre, and bringing in the previously injured Jonathan Joseph. It wasn’t enough, with a demoralized pack featuring some average players in Parling, Wood and Morgan, a front row on the back foot, plus a misfiring lineout, leaving the backs starved and easily picked off by the experienced Australia attack, boasting the diminutive Giteau at 12, and the in-form Bernard Foley at 10.

Burgess came on for the last 10 minutes with England two scores behind. Again he acquitted himself well, throwing a good faceball that sent Anthony Watson haring up the wing. However he was lucky to escape a high tackle charge on Michael Hooper who ran as an illegal blocker, and Owen Farrell was mistakenly sin binned after perfectly legitimately tackling the intended receiver. After that the Aussies scored another late try, eliminating England from their home World Cup in the group stage.

It was then that #blameburgess really got going with the rugby league haters in the media, led by the Times’ Paul Ackford and the Sunday Times’ Stephen Jones putting the boot in.

Ackford was a 1980s beanpole second row who Burgess would have swatted like a fly.

Ackford was a 1980s beanpole second row who Burgess would have swatted like a fly.

Burgess’s subsequent decision to leave Bath and return to South Sydney added to the conflagration, quite understandably offending Bath fans but also giving the rugby league haters ammunition to fire. For me it’s a shame Burgess didn’t have another season in the back-row at Bath, where I have no doubt he would have emerged as a formidable player at 6 or 8. The fact that his fiancé was from Sydney, and that his entire family lived out there, probably were the deciding factors, rather than anything to do with rugby.

All in all it was a sad tale, but I really don’t think Burgess can be faulted too much. He didn’t pick the England team, and while he didn’t make much on-field impact, he didn’t let anyone down either. Like Jarryd Hayne in the NFL, he was an easy target for the armchair critics, but you don’t get a profile like his without taking some risks, and this was one that didn’t come off. There is plenty to look forward for Burgess. His personal form has been good in a tough season for Souths, and the Four Nations tournament is set for the autumn, where hopefully he and England RL can build some momentum ahead of the Rugby League World Cup 2017 in Australia.