Huge step forward for ‘Slammin’ Sam Burgess

Sam Burgess

The journey is supposed to end at Twickenham in the World Cup Final on October 31, but it begins in earnest at Musgrave Park.

Tonight, we will finally – and even after just two months in rugby union it already seems like a long time coming – see ‘Slammin’ Sam Burgess in an England shirt.

In Bath little short of a circus follows Burgess’ every move, documenting each step of his journey from rugby league superstar to, potentially, World Cup winner.

Tonight is a huge step forward in that development. After just five games in rugby union Burgess will represent his country, starting for England Saxons against the Irish Wolfhounds in Cork. Yet there are still a multitude of things he freely admits are taking time to get used to. The weather, for one, with Cork tonight expected to be just 25 degrees cooler than Sydney, his home for the past four years, by kick-off.

But the elements he can cope with.

It is more the transition from the 13-man to the 15-man game which is proving tricky, but perhaps that was to be expected.

“There was one first-team game where there was a maul going over the tryline and I ran into it,” says Burgess of his first few weeks with Bath. “I don’t mind it, I just don’t know what’s going on sometimes.”

Yet if that seems like a surprising admission then perhaps we should cut the 26-year-old some slack. Burgess was christened the ‘sparkly-eyed man’ by Russell Crowe, the owner of his former club, the South Sydney Rabbitohs, and he is a hugely impressive individual. His character was shaped in part by caring for his terminally-ill father when still a teenager and that he would even attempt this switch at such a late stage in the World Cup cycle speaks volumes for his personality.

Assuming he sticks to his allotted schedule then Stuart Lancaster is determined to give him every chance to make England’s World Cup squad.

But the transition has been tough, as he acknowledges.

“I just wanted a test and a challenge, and I guess this game will be probably the biggest one I’ll have had so far,” said Burgess as he met the press while wearing an England training jersey for the first time.

“I certainly did have England on my mind (when he decided to switch). I was actually in England at the time, watching the autumn internationals during the 2013 Rugby League World Cup, so that excited me.

“A lot of people are asking me things that are happening down the track (about the Six Nations and World Cup), that I obviously can’t control.

“Has it been more difficult than I expected? Yeah, definitely. You have to let go of what you’ve been doing before (in league). Although it is hard, I’ll be honest, when you’ve done something your whole life, it’s hard to forget instantly.

“From being a league player, the perception of union from the league side of things is that it’s a bit easier than league, that you don’t have to be as fit as you do in league.

“It’s quite a strong statement that, and you don’t really understand what this is like until you come and play the game, how intense rugby union is in certain aspects.

“The game’s a lot tougher than I think it’s viewed from the outside.

“Personally I’ve got a lot more respect for the guys in different roles on the field.”

More respect but more phone calls from back in Australia asking if he’s tempted to give it all up and return to league, particularly when his statistics are a long way down from those he was posting while in Sydney. It is an idea Burgess dismisses instantly, insisting there are more prosaic reasons for his metres made column to be decreasing.

“I’ve not thought about back, I’m going to give it my all,” he says, firmly.

He adds: “We played against Leicester and a stat must have come up on the TV that I made 15 metres in the whole game or something. You’d try to make that in one carry in league, so the boys were giving me stick saying that I’m getting lazy and stuff.

“One of the hardest transitions is that in league you can try to influence a game no matter what because you can go and get the ball.

“In union sometimes you don’t have that opportunity because the ball just doesn’t come.

“As for the breakdown I’m getting to grips with that, I’m learning, at least in my eyes. At the beginning it was very foreign, but now I’m understanding.”

These are fairly astonishing things for a player to be saying just nine months out from a World Cup, but Burgess is no ordinary case. Tonight we will see how far he has come, and how far he still has to go to make it to October 31.


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