For those looking on from afar the Burgess saga has been a curious affair, and nowhere more than Leinster, who visit the Englishman’s former club Bath in the Champions Cup round two in 11 days and will, injury permitting following a mild gluteal strain last weekend, be taking a rather more successful code-switcher with them in Ben Te’o.
Such is the trouble in which English rugby finds itself that just six days ago Bath coach Mike Ford was predicting a bright future in the 15-man game for league convert Burgess. As Champions Cup organisers launched the latest edition of their tournament at The Twickenham Stoop last Wednesday, in the shadow of the stadium which had seen the hosts’s hopes of glory on home soil crash and burn, Ford was the focus of the English media’s attention.
He was there to look forward to as tough a European pool as one could imagine, comprising three former champions in his own club, Leinster and Wasps as well as Toulon, the current dominating force in the competition after three titles in succession. They were present to grill the former Ireland and England defence coach, himself a former league international, on the return to club colours of Slammin’ Sam.
“There’s some really juicy fixtures coming up for us,” Ford told them. “Toulon, Leinster, Leicester and Northampton, then Wasps home and away in the Champions Cup again, so six games there, blimey.
“I think knowing Sam as a competitor, he’ll want to play in those games and play well and I think he will.” Oh dear. Less than 48 hours later, Bath were announcing Burgess was flying back to Australia to rejoin the South Sydney Rabbitohs club he had left following an heroic Grand Final-winning performance in 2014. Just one Premiership season comprising 21 appearances in the Bath back row, followed by five caps at centre for England had been enough to convince the 26-year-old Yorkshire man he no longer had a future in his homeland or union.
The contrast in cases between Burgess and New Zealander Te’o, 28, could not be more striking, particularly given the parallels between them.
They were team-mates with the Rabbitohs as recently as that Grand Final win over the Bulldogs last October, before both travelled to Europe for a new life in a different sport.
When Leinster’s Leo Cullen, then an assistant to Matt O’Connor, whom he succeeded as head coach this summer, paid a visit to the NRL side in training camp prior to that campaign, Burgess was the star of the show even then, but the three-time Heineken Cup-winning captain has learned to appreciate Te’o’s talents and recognise his future worth in union with the Irish province after overcoming a difficult debut season and starting this new one in flying form, equally effective at inside or outside centre.
“I actually watched them train with the Rabbitohs during their pre-season,” Cullen said. “I didn’t know who Ben Te’o was at that stage but I knew who Sam Burgess was.
“It was two months later when Matt O’Connor said ‘oh, we’re thinking of signing this guy Ben Te’o’ and I said ‘oh, right yeah,’ and Matt goes ‘he (Te’o) said he met you’ and I was like … I couldn’t think of who he was so that’s how much I knew of Ben Te’o!!
“But he’s come into the system, he’s a really good fella. His progress was stunted with us because the Rabbitohs went to the NRL final, Sam Burgess’s progress was stunted too in similar circumstances, he broke his cheekbone in the final and Ben Te’o in his first game for us broke his arm (after 19 minutes of his debut versus Edinburgh) so it wasn’t an ideal start.
“Then you’re into the big games as the season goes on and you don’t have that catch-up time because other guys are going through the pre-season learning the system, he’s coming in learning a new language, a new game and I presume, I don’t know what it’s been like with Sam Burgess, but I’m sure it’s something similar, the challenge is to get over that.
“This year Ben’s been fortunate that he’s had a pre-season with us and you can see the gradual improvement. He trains really hard, he’s a good guy, he gets on well with the fellas and hopefully we’ll see a bit more.”
Could this be the season for Te’o to make his mark, Cullen was asked. The Leinster boss knew better than to make bold predictions.
“We hope so, we’ll wait and see.”