There is one nagging question about the movie that should one day be made to tell the tale of the fabulous Burgess boys. Who would play Russell Crowe?
It was four years ago that Sam Burgess and his mother, Julie, clambered into Crowe’s trailer on the British set of Robin Hood and set in motion what became an entire family’s emigration to Australia. All four brothers now play for Crowe’s South Sydney Rabbitohs in the National Rugby League, with Sam established as one of the city’s famous faces and his mother not far behind – “her funny accent not withstanding” as one Australian newspaper put it.
Three of the brothers, Sam and the twins George and Tom, are currently in South Africa, preparing with the rest of the England squad for the World Cup that opens in Cardiff against Australia two weeks today. Crowe and Sam Burgess have been exchanging messages about that one.
“I’ve had a couple of tweets off him about this World Cup – I’m trying to swing him round behind England,” says Sam.
The two have become close, indeed the family as a whole are friends with the actor and rugby league nut. Julie has sat in Crowe’s box at the ANZ Stadium, the ground that began life staging the 2000 Olympics, and even been forced to dismiss gossip column suggestions that there was more to their relationship. Sam is a staple of the gossip columns; he has recently been linked with Stephanie Rice, the Olympic gold-medal winning swimmer and an X-Factor contestant.
“There is a lot of interest in him and he doesn’t shy away from the media,” says George of his big brother. “He’s a good personality. Sydney has definitely adopted Sam and he loves Sydney as well. He walks down the street and people recognise his face.”
There was interest in a sporting sense from the start. Crowe first spotted Sam Burgess while watching Bradford play on TV and tracked down his phone number. It resulted in a three-and-a-half-hour meeting after which Sam became the first to head Down Under as the Australian game robbed Super League of one of its more notable talents. The “Beast of Bradford” has been described as the “best Pommie in 20 years to play in Australia”. George followed in 2010, Luke, the oldest at 26 and the one to miss out on this England squad, arrived a year later and 21-year-old Tom has just finished his first season in the toughest league in the world. It is one mighty family unit established at South Sydney; together they weigh in at nearly 73 stone with Luke the smallest of the quartet at 6ft 4in. These are the 1,022lb Poms.
It was Tom’s move that persuaded Julie to follow suit. The boys’ father, Mark, a former player, died of motor- neurone disease aged 44 in 2007, and with the rest of her family in Sydney she swapped the deputy headship of a Yorkshire school for a similar role in Australia. Again Crowe (left) did what he could to help – his sons are among the school’s pupils.
“He has been great for my family, South Sydney and the game in general,” says Sam. “Russell to me is a great friend, he is very close and very close to the family. Mum is extremely good friends. He has been a massive help in getting me and my family together in Australia. Talk about his passion for rugby league – he absolutely loves the sport.
“Life has changed drastically from leaving England four years ago. The first year is the hardest, the transition. I was without my brothers and my mum but the family is here now.”
This will be his first trip back to England for nearly three years – he has not played for his country since 2010 – and there are friends (he has a group of old mates called “the Thread”, including the Emmerdale actor Kelvin Fletcher, who keep in touch via social media) and family to catch up with after the tournament, but you sense that Australia, apart from when it comes to pulling on the national jersey, is home now.
“To say there is nothing I miss…” starts Sam and pauses. “I don’t want to sound like a… I still have mates and family back there that I miss but in terms of life I have got everything I had in England with my brothers and mum here.”
Julie will not be in Cardiff on opening night – work will keep her in Sydney unless England make the final – but Sam Burgess will be and one of Tom, or Thomas as Sam calls him in big-brotherly fashion, and George may well join him on the pitch from kick-off. The twins could find themselves competing for the same prop slot.
All four brothers played together for the first time for South Sydney this season, with the twins having made quicker progress than expected – once they could be told apart. George took to training with his socks round his ankles and different-coloured boots so the coaches could be sure who was who.
“The biggest surprise is Thomas, how quickly he has adapted and how quickly he has picked up the work ethic and the systems,” says Sam. “It is a real credit to Thomas. I think he shocked a lot of people at the club as well, including the coach.
“The way the twins have progressed, not just as rugby league players but as cracking young men, they have a great work ethic and deserve a place in the squad. It is a tough one for my brother [Luke] missing out but on the other side it is very rewarding to see my little brothers doing so well.”
Sam was less surprised by George’s brisk maturing. He arrived in Australia never having played a Super League game and returns home as NRL Rookie of the Year. The twins don’t dismiss the suggestion their form is related to being back together again after a first-ever separation. This is a close-knit family full stop, and one steeped in the sport. When their father retired, their mother started playing.
“It was a funny one,” says Tom. “They couldn’t play at the same time because someone had to stay and look after the kids.
“We all played together whenever possible. We used to pass a ball to each other when we walked down the street. Our dad got us into it, coached us, encouraged us. He had a big influence. It was a really great upbringing – mum and dad brought us up great, and I think rugby league is a good discipline for you as a child.”
Australian TV recently made a documentary about the Burgesses and it featured one memorable scene when the family gathered for dinner, demolishing a mountain of pasta in the process.
“People always ask us whether we used to fight as kids and we never did,” says Sam. “There was the occasional argument – George taking my best underpants! But other than that we don’t argue. We enjoy each other’s company every day. We are best mates as well as brothers.”
England kick off their World Cup campaign against Australia on 26 October at the Millennium Stadium. For tickets, visit rlwc2013.com/tickets