Crash course

Rugby league forward Sam Burgess has crossed codes with the aim of playing for England, as a back, at next year’s World Cup, writes MARK KEOHANE.

Dual England international Jason Robinson says Sam Burgess will break some ribs in rugby union and is good enough to make the England 2015 World Cup squad.

England rugby league coach Steve McNamara, who first picked Burgess as a 17-year-old to debut for Bradford, isn’t as bullish. McNamara has no reservations about Burgess the rugby league player, but doesn’t know if there is enough time for Burgess to successfully make the transition from league forward to union international midfielder. New Zealander Sonny Bill Williams did it but, while Burgess is the physical equal of Williams, he doesn’t have the attacking range of skills. Robinson, as good for England and the British & Irish Lions as he was for the England and Great Britain rugby league teams, believes Burgess’s work ethic, big-game temperament and physicality will make for a successful code switch.

‘I watched him in the Rugby League World Cup and he was phenomenal,’ Robinson told the Daily Mail. ‘People are saying it is not a long time to break into the World Cup squad and it isn’t. But I played for England three months after coming into union and for the Lions after seven, so it can be done.

‘It’s about what work he can get done between now and coming over; he’s got to get his head around the technical side. A lot of the work has to go in long before you get on a field. He’s a physical player and he’s going to break a few ribs. It will be great to see him out there.’

McNamara was more circumspect.

‘Sam has the basic attributes of being a rugby player but knowing the inside-outs, technicalities and understanding of the game is a completely different concept.

‘He’s going to have to work harder and study more than any other player in English rugby and he is going to have to do that on top of all the other physical aspects and normal training every player has to put in. The question is whether he can learn quickly enough. He is going to be given every opportunity but the England team is very strong and there are some fine players in the midfield. It is going to be Sam’s toughest challenge in his professional career.’

Burgess, 25, started his rugby league career at Bradford in 2006 and within four years was considered among the best in England’s Super League. He then moved to Australia’s National Rugby League in 2010 and has consistently been a standout performer for the South Sydney Rabbitohs. Burgess had three seasons left on his contract but the club released him because of his ambition to play in back-to-back league and union World Cups in England.

‘I was offered the chance to pursue a dream of representing my country in two different sports,’ he said. ‘It was an opportunity I couldn’t refuse, especially with England hosting the 2015 Rugby World Cup. I will always be grateful and thankful to the South Sydney Rabbitohs for allowing me to make the move.’

Burgess has signed for Bath, whose coach Mike Ford has an extensive rugby league background and has been familiar with the player since his early days in league.

‘Sam is an exceptionally talented athlete. He works hard, is a huge presence on and off the field, and an ambitious young Englishman, all of which are qualities we are building our squad around.

‘I’ve no doubt Sam will fit in seamlessly here at Bath and we’re looking forward to having him join us and start making the transition.’

– This article first appeared in the May 2014 issue of SA Rugby magazine

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