Youth and foreign birth prove to be no barrier for Britain's newest Test hopes

Burgess and Fa'asavalu have arrived at rugby league's top table via vastly different routes, writes Dave Hadfield
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The Independent Online

Great Britain have looked to the next generation and the other side of the world to freshen up their pack for the challenge of New Zealand tomorrow.

The side to face the Kiwis at Huddersfield in the first Gillette Test features two milestones, with Sam Burgess becoming, at 18, the youngest player to start a Test for Great Britain at prop, whilst Maurie Fa'asavalu is the first to come from the South Pacific to win a cap. At the start of the 2007 season, they had started a grand total of four Super League matches between them.

Burgess is the youngest Great Britain player since Andy Farrell made his debut, also at 18, in 1993, although Paul Newlove, as a slightly younger 18-year-old when he was first selected in 1989, remains the record-holder. There are those who believe that the Bradford forward could go on to have as long and as influential a Test career as either of them.

"It's inspiring to follow Andy Farrell," he said after his selection was confirmed yesterday. "He's obviously a legend of the game and it's good to follow in his footsteps."

The Great Britain coach, Tony Smith, was almost apologetic about leaving him out of the mid-season international against France, arguing that he needed a little more time to establish himself.

Since then, he has been voted Young Player of the Year in Super League and was man of the match in the Northern Union's clash with the Kiwi All Golds last weekend. There are no apologies from Smith about including him this time.

"Age is not a concern for me," he said. "If he's good enough, he's old enough and he brings a freshness to us with his youth and enthusiasm."

Burgess begins with a head start, because his family is imbued with rugby league. His elder brother, Luke, played against him for Harlequins earlier this year and two younger brothers are on Leeds' books.

Most poignantly, his father, the former Hunslet and Nottingham City player, Mark Burgess, died in May of motor neuron disease.

"He'd have been so proud and it's a shame he's not here to see it, but I'm sure he's watching somewhere," said Sam, who nursed him through the latter stages of the disease. It was an effort off the field which earned him much admiration for his maturity and strength of character.

He will need all that at the Galpharm tomorrow evening, where he will encounter the likes of the Kiwi captain, Roy Asotasi, and a man who sounds like an entire front-row in himself, Fuifui Moimoi.

"I don't know if they'll target me and I don't really care, but if they do, fair enough, I'll be ready. I think the Northern Union game gave Tony the confidence that I can play at that level.

"It was a real surprise to me, though, when Tony told me I was starting. When I'd looked at the 25 names, I thought I'd do well to get a game, but now that I am, I'm more excited than nervous."

The evidence of the season is that Burgess is ready for this sort of challenge. He is physically precocious and he now has the benefit of a season at the Bulls in which he played in almost every game, playing loose forward and second-row as well as up front, such is his rare combination of size and agility.

"I didn't expect to get as far as I did this season," he said. No young prop, in the history of the game in Britain, has got so far, so soon. The issue in the case of tomorrow's other debutant, Maurie Fa'asavalu, is not when he was born but where. For the record, that was in Samoa, rather than St Helens, 25 years ago.

Fa'asavalu caught the eye of the then Saints coach, Ian Millward, at the 2003 Rugby Union World Cup, at which he played impressively at flanker for his home island.

Saints signed him and the wing or centre, Dom Feaunati, as a long-term project. Feaunati did not last the course and is back in rugby union, but Fa'asavalu certainly did, establishing himself in that distinctive role in the modern game – the impact forward.

In a nutshell, his role is to come into the game when Saints' front-rowers have taken some of the sting out of the opposition tackling and knock a few holes in the defence.

It is a job at which he is sufficiently good to make Smith sit up and take notice when he announced in September that he wanted to play for Great Britain.

Under the permissive qualification rules that now govern world sport, there is no reason why he should not do so. He has never played rugby league in Samoa, New Zealand or anywhere else, let alone represented them in a Test, and he meets the three-year residency rule with ease.

"As far as rugby league is concerned, I regard myself as British," he said. "This is where I started to play."

There have been other foreign-born players who have expressed a wish to play for Great Britain, but not since the South African, David Barends, in 1979 has one been picked.

Smith had no qualms about breaking that pattern, even though Fa'asavalu, in his first game back after a hamstring injury, had one of his least effective matches of the season against his Leeds side in the Grand Final.

"The hamstring probably hampered him at the back end of the season, but he's over that and he's been training the house down," Smith said. "He's really keen to do the best job he can for his country."

For Smith, the passport a player carries means as much as the birth certificate – and that is not very much at all. If they are good enough, they are not only old enough, they are also British enough.

Great Britain's unlikely couple

Sam Burgess

Age: 18 Born: 14/12/88, Leeds

Club: Bradford

Appearances: 11 starts plus 28 as a substitute

Tries: 6 Goals: 5

Representative appearances GB: Schools, Academy, Northern Union v All Golds

Maurie Fa'asavalu

Age: 25 Born: 19/5/82, Samoa

Club: St Helens

Appearances: 5 starts plus 94 as a substitute

Tries: 24

Representative appearances Samoa: Rugby Union World Cup, 2003

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