There was a time, not so long ago, when the term “English-style forward” was not an entirely complimentary one in Australian rugby league. A bit slow, defensively fallible, probably carrying a pound or two – that was the image. But if Adrian Morley did not destroy that stereotype more than a decade ago, then Sunday's NRL Grand Final in Sydney should finally lay it to rest.
The key men for both sides when South Sydney Rabbitohs collide with the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs are Pom bruisers – Sam Burgess for the Rabbits and James Graham for the Dogs. Both of them were voted the competition’s best in their position this week.
There is no knee-jerk prejudice against English forwards now: no Aussie pack is complete without one. The last time you could say that was in the 1970s, when imports like Malcolm Reilly and Brian Lockwood ruled the roost.
Burgess led the new wave of Brits when he left the Bradford Bulls for Souths in 2010, persuaded to make the switch by the club’s owner, Russell Crowe. Since then, he has been joined by his older brother Luke and the twins, Tom and George. The four of them broke a 100-year-old record when they appeared together for the Rabbitohs last season.
Next season, there will be just three of them at the club. Sam is playing his last game of rugby league at the Olympic Stadium on Sunday before trying his hand at union with Bath and bidding to win a place in next year’s World Cup. “I feel like I owe this club a Premiership,” he said this week. “And that’s what I plan to give them.”
Burgess’s sheer athleticism and destructive running can make a mess of any defence, as he has continued to show this season.
Inevitably, though, all eyes will be on the confrontation with his fellow-countryman Graham, who has been at Canterbury since arriving from St Helens in 2012. Graham played in a losing Grand Final for the Bulldogs that year, but has grown in presence and stature in the Australian game since then.
The Liverpool-born prop plays the game with a passion that usually stays just the right side of fury – and occasionally crosses the line. His NRL record includes a 12-match suspension for biting the ear of the Kangaroo full-back Billy Slater – an action he has always denied.
His high intensity was illustrated during the play-offs by the dressing-down he gave a team-mate after he made a handling error. Australians would not accept that from many players, but from James Graham they would.
He and Burgess were never particularly close friends in international squads, but the mutual respect is strong. Graham denies, however, that they will be targeting each other in the Grand Final.
“I reckon, honestly, that there is not as much in it as people say,” Graham told a press conference in Sydney this week. “He plays in the middle, I play in the middle.”
But just that statement of fact promises some fireworks when the two meet, as they are bound to do.
It could also develop into a master-class in state-of-the-art forward play, because both men are capable of unlocking defences with their handling skills.
Burgess is perhaps most dangerous making breaks in the right-centre channel and finding players such as Greg Inglis in support.
Graham has honed his ability to pass the ball just before hitting the defensive line – a skill that has seen him described as “a scrum-half in a prop forward’s body”.
That rare ability has not made him immune to disappointment at Grand Final time. He lost five in a row with St Helens before making it a neat half-dozen in his first season with the Bulldogs.
Unlike Burgess, however, he has no plans to leave either rugby league or Australia. There have been talks about a contract extension that will see him end his playing days with the Bulldogs and he has hinted at staying in Australia permanently when he retires.
Plenty of British stars have done just that. Sunday's eagerly awaited clash will determine whether he or the very different but equally devastating Sam Burgess will go into whatever the future holds as a Grand Final winner.Reuse content