English gladiator learns to fight celebrity status

Sam Burgess, who will face Australia on Sunday, is taking tips from Russell Crowe on how to cope with his sudden fame Down Under
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The Independent Online

Being Sam Burgess in Australia is a little like being a film star and, almost to his own surprise, the England forward has found that he rather likes it.

The former Bradford Bulls player has just completed an acclaimed first season with South Sydney. It was been very different, he admits, being recognised wherever he goes – at least along the eastern seaboard – after being a relatively well-kept secret in West Yorkshire, but it is nothing he cannot handle. "I've had to learn as I've gone along; where you can be seen, where you shouldn't be, how to talk to the media – that sort of thing," he says.

"The game is that much more high-profile out here and you get a lot more attention. It's not a problem for me. I quite enjoy it."

There was a bit of showbiz glamour involved in bringing Burgess to the Rabbitohs, as South Sydney are known, with their part-owner and driving force, Russell Crowe, making the approach. "I'd be lying if I said that didn't make a difference," Burgess says. "There were a lot of things going on with other clubs, but I believed in what he said about his ambitions for the club, and everything he promised to me, he has delivered."

The two are near-neighbours in Sydney, Crowe in Wooloomooloo, Burgess in the even swankier Potts Point. "I looked at living out on the beaches, but there it would just be football, football all the time. Nearer the city, it can be a bit of a sanctuary."

Crowe and Burgess meet up a couple of times a week and talk on the phone every other day, as the actor continues to advise him on dealing with his own celebrity. "He's just a very easy person to get on with, a very humble man with no edge to him," Burgess says of the "Gladiator".

Like his mentor, he has had to get used to cameras being trained upon him. He has had a crew, making a documentary, following him since he signed for Souths. "And they're still there," he says.

Of course, all this hoopla would count for little if the boy from Bradford was not doing the business in the uniquely demanding environment of the NRL. Although it was a disappointment for him and them that Souths failed to make the end-of-season play-offs, the critics are united in their view that, like his fellow-countryman, Gareth Ellis, he is among the best forwards in the competition.

Two of the most battle-hardened members of the Australian pack, Petero Civoniceva and Paul Gallen, this week called the two of them the best in the game.

Like the glowing reviews outside the cinema, however, that counts for little if the reality does not measure up, and Burgess admits that neither the team's performance nor his own was big box-office in their opening Four Nations match against New Zealand, which England lost 24-10.

"I was just very disappointed, that's the only way I can put it," he says. "We've got a good enough team to have done better – we showed that in the second half – but we really didn't do enough in the first."

Burgess is self-critical enough to put part of the blame for the performance on himself. "It wasn't my best, but I don't think that was down to me being under pressure. I've had quite a lot of pressure on me since I came out here and I think it's brought the best out of me. The one thing we know is that we've all got to improve as individuals this week."

Musing to himself, Burgess thinks he might have worried too much about the overall performance to the detriment of his own game last Saturday. Although he was seriously considered as the successor to the injured Adrian Morley as England captain on this tour, it is worth remembering that he is still only 21.

For his collision on Sunday with the players against whom he has proved himself on a weekly basis, Steve McNamara has switched him to prop. Burgess is one of those rare forwards who is big enough and athletic enough to play everywhere from open-side prop to loose forward, but maybe moving back to the front row will get him back to the basics of doing what come naturally.

"It's been a different life over here," he says. "It's like a full-time job, but it's a pleasure to train and prepare for games. I miss my family and my dogs, but my mum and brother are out here for the matches. Players sometimes ask for my advice about playing out here and I tell them, if they've got the confidence in themselves, just to have a go."

Australia, you sense, is going to be the making of Sam Burgess, but it is the country of his birth that needs him to show his quality in Melbourne on Sunday.