So it seems that Sam Burgess if back off to South Sydney, leaving Bath, and Union, with immediate effect.
It was not supposed to be like that.
Burgess was the great cross-code hope, England’s Sonny Bill Williams, the perfect blend of destructive power in his running and tackling and finesse in his offloading game. Except it never happened. Or, rather, it was forced to happen all too soon.
The funny thing is, in his year in Union, Burgess did very little wrong. His only flaw was not to be as immediately brilliant as everyone hoped. In other words, he was human. He took time to learn. He was learning.
In many ways Burgess’ demise is the perfect example of why England are not where they claim they should be in the international game. This is not about him being picked in the World Cup squad, there will be a thousand other articles by writers with many, many, more years of experience than me detailing that.
No, this is about the inability of England and the Premiership clubs to work together for the same goal. First we had the farce over who was actually bringing Burgess from League to Union, was it the RFU or was it Bath. It was Bath, as it turned out, but only after months of apparent confusion.
Then we had the ridiculous situation of England almost demanding that he play at centre, whilst Bath continually expressed that they saw him as six. It did not matter who was right or not, what mattered was that they disagreed and never resolved it. Bath switched him to six early, then England picked him for the World Cup and immediately moved him to twelve. I struggle to believe that a player playing the sport for a decade could adapt to the requisite standard in those circumstances at that pace, at that level, let alone a new convert.
The whole sorry affair leaves nobody looking good, but most of all it poses this question to me? Would it have been like this in New Zealand, in Australia, in South Africa? My feeling is no. That is because their clubs and union work as one. Players are centrally contracted, their workloads and schedules are devised in consultation with the union. There are clear lines of authority and communication. The international side comes first.
That is the problem here in England, and it is not a ‘Burgess problem’. It is not really Bath’s fault either, they are an independent business, and under the structure we currently have, they had to do what was best for the club and the business. The structure is the problem, and unfortunately there appears little appetite for that structure to change.
The great shame in it all is, of course, that Burgess is apparently off. He might never have been a great Union player, though he might have been, but he certainly showed all the signs of at least being a very good one. But he needed time, he needed to learn, he needed to get back to his club.
The only problem is, ‘his club’ is the South Sydney Rabbitohs. He is revered like a God there, they love him, he loves them. There he is king of his surrounds. A tough one to say no to when the other option is to stay in Bath and be subjected to rigorous, and occasionally unfair, analysis of your faults.
There is disappointment though. The Burgess we were all told about, the reason he made the World Cup squad, is a man of character, mentally more robust than a whole roomful of his peers. A man who never shirks a challenge, never knows when or how to quit, who does not back down.
Except he has. And that is Burgess only real failing in all of this, and it is only because we were led to believe he was bigger and better than the rest of us.
England on the other hand have many failings in this. They need to sort out the problems between them and the clubs, there has been progress but there must be more.
Even more pressingly though, they need to talk to the likes of Luther Burrell, Klye Eastmond, and Billy Twelvetrees. They will rightly be furious. Carl Fearns left the Rec this summer to move to Lyon in the French second tier. This was in large part due to the fact that his game time was going to evaporate due to Burgess. He has already made his thoughts clear (below), those England centres who missed out on a World Cup spot will likely feel similarly.
The problem is, Burgess’ star was so bright that it demanded the attention, even if he did not want it, and when circumstances put him in a situation that he could not yet succeed to the level of that stardom in, that attention became a burden that was all too much. He did an ok job, especially for a novice, but everyone was expecting fireworks, so when we got none, we collectively delivered a rocket.
There are plenty of lessons to be learned by all from this sorry saga. The great shame is that we will never see Burgess get to learn his, for that is what we were all excited about.
The game drove him away, the game is supposed to be better than that.