Sun, Nov 08, 2015 - Page 18 News List

Burgess returns to league after failed union venture

AFP, LONDON

As if presiding over the first host nation to suffer a pool-phase exit at a Rugby World Cup was not bad enough, Sam Burgess’ return to rugby league after just a year in rugby union will further undermine England coach Stuart Lancaster.

It was always asking a lot of Burgess, heading back to the South Sydney Rabbitohs, barely 12 months after helping the club win the Australian NRL Grand Final, to become a fully fledged union international in such a short space of time.

The venture became all the more difficult when, in the absence of a central contract, club side Bath and England saw his union future in two different positions.

Bath played him mainly as a flank forward, while England saw him as an inside center — a key playmaking position in the backline.

Because the two rugby codes are played with an oval-shaped ball, it is easy to think the only key difference between them is that there are 15 players in a union team and 13 in a league one.

However, while a tackle in league sees play halted, in union it is the start of a contest for possession.

The line-out, another important area for union forwards, simply does not exist in league.

Burgess, trying to master two of union’s most demanding positions and a complex rulebook, made just one start and two appearances off the bench during the World Cup.

He certainly did not cost England a quarter-final place. In the key defeat by Wales, having done an admirable defensive job and been a useful decoy runner in build-up to a try, his side were leading when Burgess came off only for Wales to rally late on.

However, his undeniable physical power and presence could not disguise his lack of ease in his England role, with veteran Ireland center Gordon D’Arcy’s withering critique that Burgess “doesn’t know how to play inside center” sadly proving all too accurate.

That Burgess’ inclusion in the World Cup squad came at the expense of experienced center Luther Burrell, who up until the tournament had been one of the mainstays of Lancaster’s three years as England coach, all added to the sense of a needless gamble.

There was a hope in some quarters that Burgess might do for Lancaster what fleet-footed former rugby league star Jason Robinson did for Clive Woodward’s World Cup-winning England side of 2003.

However, Robinson was a wing, a position in which there is the least difference between the two codes, and he had two years of international rugby union behind him when England won the World Cup.

“What happened really was he [Burgess] was asked to play either at flanker for his club or center for England — two of the most difficult positions to play rugby, with a constant 80 minutes of decisionmaking,” former England union flyhalf Stuart Barnes told Sky Sports. “It’s not a mark of failure for Burgess not to have cracked it in under a year.”

“What it does do is question England’s blind determination to force him in, when it was always going to be a race against time,” Barnes said.

England assistant coach Andy Farrell — another cross-code convert — was in the firing line over Burgess’ rapid promotion, but Lancaster — bidding to stay in post as England review a woeful Cup campaign — will have to carry the can.

“It leaves Stuart Lancaster in a very tenuous position,” Barnes said. “I don’t think he was the most convinced of the England coaches about the qualities of Sam Burgess for this year, but the fact is Stuart Lancaster had the final say and he selected him in the 31 [man squad].”

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