obituary: John Burgess

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The Independent Online
Although his sporting life was dedicated to Rugby Union, first as a player and later as England coach and RFU president, one of the defining moments which shaped the philosophy of John Burgess came during a pre- war visit as a youngster to the Manchester United football ground at Old Trafford.

"I can still recall quite vividly a United reserve, a 20-year-old called Johnny Carey, dealing with a high ball in a tight corner," he recalled, half a century later. "The incident was only a few feet away from me and I can remember now, as if it were yesterday, how he took the ball on his instep and brought it under control in an instant.

"I could not believe that a man could do what he did. I was mesmerised by a moment of pure skill and that image has always stayed with me. One flash like that can make the most depressing game worthwhile for me."

Although he played one game with Blackburn Rovers during a year of association football for the club after he left school, he quickly decided that he did not share Carey's talent. After service with the Fleet Air Arm in the Second World War, he turned to Rugby Union with Old Salfordians and later joined Broughton Park. From that point, Rugby Union became his consuming interest.

His playing days reached a pinnacle in the twilight of his career when, at 38, he was chosen to play for the North West Counties against the All Blacks at White City in 1964, but it was as a coach that he first came to prominence in his native Lancashire.

The transition from playing to coaching started at Broughton Park, but took a major step forward when Lancashire invited him to take charge of their side in 1968. His impact was enormous, not only on the side, which lost only three matches under his guidance, but upon the individual players involved.

When he took over, Lancashire had only one inter- national, the flanker Dick Greenwood. By the time Burgess handed over the reins in 1973, to concentrate on his duties as a Lancashire representative on the RFU Committee, the Red Rose county had provided over 20 internationals, four England captains and a British Lions captain for good measure.

In business life, Burgess was an electrical engineer by training, having studied at Salford Technical College, and he worked extensively in the Soviet Union and world-wide as managing director of the Stockport company Simon Handling, as a result of which he was appointed CBE in 1978 for his services to world exports. In addition to a great affection for the classic Russian fur hat, which was for many years his own fashion state-ment, Burgess's work was clearly influential in bringing the vital ingredients of precision, planning and attention to detail to his rugby. He was also a man who constantly dem- anded mental agility from his team, cries of "Thinking, Lancashire, thinking!" providing the backdrop to many of their triumphs.

For some, he was ahead of his time in terms of thinking and planning. For others, notably during his time as England coach during tours to Japan and Australia in 1971 and 1975 and during the 1974-75 domestic season, he was too direct. This was a man with enormous passion for life, who delivered his views straight from the shoulder. Not everyone could handle his style.

His successes in the North, most notably in directing the North West Counties to the first defeat of the New Zealand All Blacks by any regional side, at Workington in 1972, had turned as much on his motivational skills as his strategic planning. His team talks have passed into the folklore of Lancashire and Northern Rugby and the image of him stripped to his string vest, pounding out his oration with huge animation, and ultimately destoying the dressing-room table, will live long in the hearts of those who shared that momentous Workington experience.

Yet, behind his verbal pyrotechnics, there was also a man of compassion and thoughtfulness who was proper, respectful, well-mannered. He cared deeply for his players, scolding when the need arose, but always quick with a personal wel- come to a new face and an individual word of encouragement or praise, a pat on the back or a hug which said "Well done" on the good days or "Hard lines" when things hadn't worked out.

As an administrator, Burgess held the office of RFU President in the 1987-88 season, having joined the Committee as a Lancashire representative in 1967. He led the Burgess Commission in 1981 which sought to identify the best way forward for the game at that time - a mission he was still deeply committed to and actively involved in at the time of his death.

But while his work for the game at international level brought him an enormous collection of friendships, his greatest joy was to be working for Lancashire and the North, searching for excellence and constantly hoping to recapture the days when Cotton, Beaumont, Neary, Slemen, Carleton, Smith et al wore the England jersey with pride and distinction.

John Burgess, rugby player, coach and administrator: born Salford 8 November 1924; England Rugby Union coach, Japan tour 1971, Australia tour 1975, England 1974-75; CBE 1978; President, Rugby Football Union 1987- 88; twice married (one son, one daughter); died Macclesfield, Cheshire 1 January 1997.

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