Even with all of the speculation that has surrounded the future of Sam Burgess since England were knocked out of the Rugby Union World Cup, I was still surprised to open up the BBC website on Thursday afternoon and see the breaking news that Burgess had quit Bath Rugby with immediate effect and would, presumably, be returning to the NRL with South Sydney Rabbitohs – a fact that was confirmed later in the day.
I was bang in the middle of writing an article about why both Burgess and Jarryd Hayne should fight to overcome the difficulties they were currently having in their new careers, Hayne having been ‘waived’ at the weekend by the San Francisco 49ers in the NFL, and must admit that I was disappointed with the news that Burgess had quit.
Not because it ruined my article but because I thought it was the easy option for him to jump ship and return to his home from home in Sydney with the Rabbitohs.
I tweeted ‘’Must be honest, I feel slightly disappointed that Burgess has taken the ‘easy’ option and quit RU. Would like to hear his reasons.’
A friend of mine tweeted back saying ‘’Easy option or sensible option Andy? If I was him my mind would’ve been made up after the Wales WC game.’’
There is no doubt that Burgess was unduly vilified by the Rugby Union press and some former RU players, who should take a long hard look at themselves, and was made the major scapegoat for England’s failure to get themselves out of the ‘Group of Death’.
The vast majority of fans, both League and Union, could see that the failings of the team could not purely be put at one man’s door – whether that was Burgess, Head Coach Stuart Lancaster or anyone else.
However, Burgess was not helped by the England Head Coach or his coaching team.
Lancaster and his assistant Andy Farrell, a former dual code international himself, clearly believed from the outset of Burgess’ rugby union career that he should play in the centre position rather than on the side of the scrum where he had been playing the majority of his rugby for Bath.
This seeming intransigence means that Burgess was having to learn the complexities of two different positions and took the World Cup spot of Luther Burrell – the incumbent Test centre who had played in all of England’s Six Nations matches earlier in the year – adding to the intensity of the pressure already on him.
I am sure Sam knew that the glare of publicity would mainly be aimed in his direction and was prepared accordingly.
As the new kid on the block who had jumped ship from the rival code with near mythical status and succeeded in making the massive jump to the international scene, the pressure for him to succeed was immense and the huge press corps that was following the Rugby Union World Cup were waiting to glimpse any sign of failure.
Without a doubt that failure did not come from Burgess. He played a cameo role in the opening victory over Fiji and the defeat against Australia and was not selected for the final dead rubber against Uruguay – a strange decision in itself although numerous other star players were also not selected.
It was the Wales group game that really made people sit up and take notice of how poor England were and Burgess was in the full glare as he started at centre in place of the injured Jonathan Joseph.
Big Sam performed well enough.
A lot of ‘experts’ have said that he contained the Welsh British Lions centre Jamie Roberts well in the game and England were leading by 7 points when he was replaced by George Ford late on.
Owen Farrell was moved out wide to replace Burgess in the centres with Ford taking over at fly half – England imploded and lost the game.
That made the following weeks encounter with Australia a must win game – Burgess was back on the bench as Joseph was now fit and England lost by 20 points and were out of the World Cup, the first host nation not to get out of the group stages.
The answer to all of this – #Blame Burgess.
Some of the press have really laid into Burgess alongside the England coaching staff but no other player, maybe apart from the captain Chris Robshaw, has had their role questioned or scrutinised like Sam’s.
Throughout all of this he has retained his dignity and integrity and has not spoken to the press.
The first sign that there was a potential problem was when Bath gave Burgess an unplanned 10 day break which was explained as him ‘’not feeling right’’ – he then turned up with the England Rugby League squad to watch their friendly against France and sat next to Head Coach Steve McNamara, the man who gave Burgess his Super League debut for the Bradford Bulls back in 2006.
There is no doubt that Burgess has put in a huge amount of work to get himself anywhere near the standard that he needed to be to warrant his position in the England World Cup squad – even though it was clear that the RFU and Lancaster desperately wanted him to make the transition quickly it was down to the man himself to make sure he was performing at a high enough standard.
Having done that and ran the gauntlet of the Rugby Union press over the last few weeks with a great amount of dignity, I can only think that his decision was formulating itself before the start of the World Cup tournament.
It has been reported that Burgess and South Sydney Head Coach Michael McGuire were texting each other throughout the brilliant NRL Grand Final between North Queensland Cowboys and Brisbane Broncos back at the end of September.
This was denied as late as Tuesday by both Craig and his Head Coach Mike Ford, but it is clear that they were trying to deflect attention away from what was going on behind the scenes.There was never any doubt that if Burgess sent out the signals that he was unhappy in rugby union then Russell Crowe, the owner of the Rabbitohs, would be beating on the door of the Bath owner Bruce Craig in order to finalise a deal.
Burgess was only going one way and that was back to Sydney and his mother, brothers and soon to be in-laws plus his extended family at the Rabbitohs.
He will be welcomed home as a returning hero – the option was always there and it was an easy decision for him to make.
Burgess has cited missing his family as the main reason for his decision.
Would he have made the same decision if England had won the World Cup or at least performed admirably and the press had given him glowing reports?It is clear that family means much to him and that he is very close to his brothers and his mother, who all live in Sydney, but surely he must have known this before the World Cup or even before he signed his 3 year contract with Bath – after all, he’s not a young kid anymore.
Although Bath have received a significant transfer fee for Burgess – reportedly much higher than what they paid to get him released from his Rabbitohs contract – I would feel massively disappointed by his decision.
Everyone has the right to change their mind at any time in every aspect of life but I feel that Burgess owed it to the Bath club to see out his contract – or at least play until the end of this season – basically he has left a hole in their squad although I am sure they will be quick to fill it now that a large chunk of their salary cap is now unexpectedly available.
For Sam’s long term future I guess he has made a sensible decision.
He may feel that he will not become an international forward in rugby union, even though his build and skill set is suited perfectly to the modern day flanker position, within the next 2 years of his contract and that there is no point in trying if he is not going to attain success at the highest level of the game within that timescale.
I always thought that by the 2019 Rugby Union World Cup in Japan he would be safely back playing rugby league anyway.
It is sensible because he is going back to a game that he was born to play – Burgess was and always will be a rugby league player.
He is the type of player who needs to be involved from minute 1 to minute 80, who makes 40 to 50 tackles a match and hits the ball up 20 times a match – he is a modern day warrior.
It is sensible because he is back with his family. He is getting married in Sydney in December and his fiance’s family are in Australia.
It is sensible because he will be the highest paid player in the world of rugby league with the Rabbitohs reportedly paying him £700,000 per season over his 3 year deal.
However, I still can’t help but feel that Burgess has let a lot of people down by his sudden change of heart.
Undoubtedly Stuart Lancaster and Andy Farrell’s positions will come under even greater scrutiny as they were the one’s who pushed for his inclusion in the England squad and expected him to be a part of their long term plans and I wonder how Luther Burrell feels after losing his World Cup position to a temporary interloper.
There is no doubt that Burgess made a success of his time in rugby union, you do not earn international recognition on name alone, but I feel that he should have seen his contract out and shown his critics how good he is.
It is great for rugby league that we have our biggest name back with us and I can’t wait to see him playing for England in next year’s Four Nations tournament in the UK.
Welcome back Sam.