NEW: The Third Half – Analysis of the 6 Nations, Conor O’Shea and Chris Ashton
This week Matt and Jamie talk through some of the other nations...
As soon as Stuart Lancaster selected former rugby league golden boy in his 50-man summer training camp, the time in when the question about Burgess’ presence in the playing squad at the World Cup would present itself was inevitable. The media lapped up his inclusion in the training squad which gave a ‘feel-good’ factor to the England team announcement. But as England’s preparation for the Rugby World Cup ramps up, the question on everyone’s minds including the media’s is only going to become more pertinent – is Sam Burgess worth the gamble?
Bath Coach Mike Ford came out during the week backing Bath player Sam Burgess to seal a spot in England’s Rugby World Cup squad. And while he did admit that the question of Burgess’ selection will be sitting on Lancaster’s mind, he spoke in no uncertain terms that he thought Burgess was worth a shot.
“Sam might be one of those decisions (where) Stuart has not quite made his mind up. But the rugby side of things will start now with England away in Denver, and the preparation in terms of the style they want to play. Hopefully, Sam will get a crack in the warm-up games. He was outstanding in the Premiership final. I expect him to get in, if he gets a shot in the warm-up games, which I expect him to do.”
That a player’s coach, whose loyalties lie entirely in the player and whose future has zero bearing on the performance of a national team in which he has no ties to, would come out and be definite on Burgess’ selection.
Fortunately for the England Rugby Union, Ford isn’t at the helm of the national team and therefore his opinion is rendered irrelevant. The decision to include Sam Burgess in the Rugby World Cup team should not be one taken lightly and, if I was Stuart Lancaster, would keep me up until the wee hours of the morning.
There’s no denying that Sam Burgess has immense physical prowess; a premiership title in his final year in rugby league as well as a man of the match in the Grand Final after playing on with a broken jaw, Burgess has showed time and time again that he is an impressive athlete. He is also a man mountain and would be an asset in England’s back row. But even the most astute Burgess fan would admit that rugby union is a world apart from rugby league and that few international tournaments (for the exception of football of course) throw up more of a pressurized cauldron of an atmosphere than the Rugby World Cup.
From the centres to the back row and back again, Burgess hasn’t enjoyed the easiest transition to the game in comparison to someone like Sonny Bill Williams – granted that before Williams turned out for the All Blacks, he enjoyed a number of seasons in French Rugby Union as well as a full season in New Zealand’s domestic rugby competition.
But at Bath, Burgess has had to confront rugby union head on. Missing out on selection for the 6 Nations in February (understandably after converting to rugby union in October 2014), should he make the Rugby World Cup squad, he’ll play in just three International matches before the cup kicks off which is a liability in itself.
It is an extraordinary request to ask of someone to transfer codes and adapt to the game to the point where you’re ready to play that code at test quality. And not to mention battle head-to-head against players who have been playing the game their whole lives. Of course, this would be all part of the thought process currently going through Stuart Lancaster’s mind.
On one hand, Burgess is a gigantic specimen and his physical presence on the field would be an asset to England who’s forward pack has often lacked in physicality.
On the other hand, he will be greatly underdone in the context of test rugby and is still trying to understand the game.
In a World Cup year, when the stakes are at the very highest, is he worth the risk?