OPINION – When Sam Burgess made his long awaited debut for Bath at the end of November last year, all eyes unsurprisingly were on how the ex-rugby league player would fit into the 15 man game. While Burgess’ physical presence and ability were never in doubt or the fact that he is destructive on attack and in defence, a seamless transition to rugby union was highly unlikely. And so it has proved…
As we approach Stuart Lancaster’s second cut of England’s World Cup training squad with nine men expected to be leaving the group on Friday, hype and doubt continues to surround the former league player. And while his place appears to be safe with Lancaster hinting at the inclusion of the 26 year old in England’s warm up matches against France later this month, one can’t help but think that the indecision about where Burgess is going to play can only hinder England’s progress moving forward.
If you cast your mind back to Bath’s Aviva Premiership clash with Newcastle in April, Burgess was moved from centre to the back row role of flanker where the West Yorkshireman seemed to grow in to immediately. His confidence grew with each performance and, should Burgess remain in rugby union after the World Cup, he will form a formidable back row at Bath for this coming Premiership season. These performance and these confidence levels were undoubtedly the catalyst for his inclusion in Stuart Lancaster’s 50-man World Cup training squad.
Yet on the eve of the announcement of England’s penultimate squad, Burgess finds himself in a no-man’s land of sorts. He is in serious contention to make the World Cup however in a completely different position then the one for which he was picked to play to begin with.
Former World Cup winning halfback Matt Dawson made it clear he wanted to see Burgess in the back row.
“Some see him as a centre, some as a back row, some as a league import good enough to fill either role. My preference is for flanker,” Dawson said.
Reinforce that statement with the unequivocal comment made by Bath coach Mike Ford.
“He has played in the centre, then the back row and I think moving forward he is going to be a world-class player in the back row” he said.
So… There really can be only three ways that Lancaster is looking at this scenario. He is; being a little daft; seeing something that quite a lot of us seem to be missing or; lastly and I really hope this isn’t the case, being put between a rock and a hard place?
- Is the England coach being a little daft?
The performances that Burgess has produced at flanker compared to in the centres should be enough proof that his best position is in the back row where he can exploit players with his physicality, speed and his skill-set. And for Lancaster not to play him there will not be only a dent of confidence to Burgess but have him in two minds about how and where to play. In just 10 months after defecting to rugby union, it’s an unenviable situation to be in, for Lancaster and for Burgess.
- Is Lancaster seeing something that we’re not?
Burgess is undoubtedly a talented player and, whether he plays in centre or in the flanks is going to be a huge benefit on the field – the affect that’s often called the ‘Sonny Bill’ affect. He will make things happen but his knowledge about the intricacies of the game would still be quite limited, especially when those intricacies are applied in a test match scenario. So if there is something about Burgess that we haven’t seen yet, I hope we do soon…
- Is Lancaster stuck between a rock and a hard place?
Back room deals are now the new black and many would be naïve in thinking that national coaches aren’t privy to the conversations with potential high profile rugby-league converts before they defect. It’s not outside the realm of possibilities that Lancaster is unwilling to guarantee a flanker position to Burgess under the guise of playing him at centre because of his unwillingness to make Burgess too much of a key role in the team.
Many former players, coaches, pundits, publications like the Rugby Drum have come out and expressed that maybe he’s just not up to test rugby quality just yet but his presence on the field is always a benefit. Is it a case of Stuart Lancaster wanting Burgess to be a part of the set up but in a less crucial position?
This continuous debate, as nonsensical as it appears seems be taking its toll on Sam Burgess as well…
“I follow my coaches’ orders, and I do it to the best of my ability”, he said at a press conference earlier this week.
They’re not words that instill the utmost confidence in fans and they don’t really sound like the words of a man who is confident in himself. Burgess must know his best position is in the back row, and, if I was Stuart Lancaster, would have no hesitation in slotting him in 6 alongside Chris Robshaw and Billy Vunipola.
Ideally Burgess needs to be sat down and told what position he is playing or he needs to voice his own opinion to his coaches so he can give 110% effort into improving in his chosen position – if he plays at flanker for club and centre for country it will always hinder his progress and there is no sense in doing that.
If he is chosen in the squad charged with bringing Bill back to England’s shores, it will be, at the end of the day Stuart Lancaster who makes that final decision of where Burgess will play. While Lancaster is the gatekeeper, it doesn’t change the bottom line that Burgess, statistically and practically is a better flanker. It just depends on whether his national coach sees that in time.