The best-laid plans of the “Sam Burgess for England Society” – one club appearance off the bench and one start before heading straight into the Test squad without passing “Go” – crumbled to dust today when Bath had the temerity to name the cross-code maestro among their replacements for a second successive week.
But never fear. Burgess is sure to get a run against Montpellier in Friday night’s European Champions Cup match in the south of France and if he makes the most of it, a red-rose call-up may not be far away.
Two surges with ball in hand at the Recreation Ground last week, against a Harlequins team who had already sunk without trace in the River Avon, attracted more detailed analysis than the last Apollo moonshot, and even though the second of those carries went pear-shaped, Burgess emerged from his 17-minute cameo well ahead of the public opinion curve. Confirmation that he could catch a ball and run in a straight line appeared to persuade the masses that here was an England centre in waiting.
This may well turn out to be the case – the national coaches have said precious little to dampen expectations – but it would surely be useful to see the man start a must-win game against serious opposition before demanding that he be guaranteed a place in his country’s World Cup squad. Will that start be before Christmas? If Bath lose this evening and effectively kiss goodbye to their chances of qualification for the knockout stage, it will be no surprise to see him picked for the return match with Montpellier in seven days’ time.
Whatever individual role Burgess plays – and he is listed, once again, as a replacement centre – it is important that Bath make a stand. Defeats by Glasgow and Toulouse in the opening tranche of Euro matches were disappointing, irrespective of the fact that their limited back-row resources had been stretched far beyond snapping point, and even if they are now prioritising a promising Premiership challenge, honour is at stake.
Not least because the English contingent, very much the driving forces behind the palace coup that brought the Heineken Cup to its knees and very nearly left northern hemisphere union Balkanised as a result, are underperforming in this new tournament of their own construction. Sale and Wasps have also been beaten twice; Northampton committed a peculiar form of rugby suicide in Paris against Racing Metro; Saracens finished second in Munster; and Leicester messed up on a major scale against the Llanelli-based Scarlets last time out.
Only Quins are two from two going into this weekend’s third round and, with the best will in the world, it is difficult to see the alarmingly fragile Londoners running through a pool containing Leinster. It is well over five years since the fake-blood affair arising from a notorious Heineken Cup quarter-final between the two sides, and Quins have changed two-thirds of their team and half their coaches since then. But the notion that Leinster have forgotten is for the birds. The Dubliners will be in full warpaint at The Stoop on Sunday.
Northampton, the English champions, are favourites to win their group despite events in Paris – they have straightforward back-to-back matches against an emasculated Treviso next – and with three group runners-up progressing to the last eight, Saracens also have their chances. But Leicester are bang up against it, even with Tom Youngs, Dan Cole, Geoff Parling and Tom Croft back after injury.
“Toulon have layer upon layer of quality players,” said the Tigers rugby director, Richard Cockerill. “They’ve bought themselves top-of-the-range professionals with massive experience and it’s worked for them, but that model is simply not one we can follow because their wage bill must be upwards of €20m [£15.8m]. We’ve left ourselves needing something out of these matches against the champions because of that horrendously poor performance against Scarlets – a performance that may well decide the shape of this pool. We’re likely to be punished for that display, if I’m being honest.”
Back at Bath, there was an interesting choice in the tight-five department when selection was announced. By sticking with the front row that hurt Quins so badly a week ago – Nick Auterac and Henry Thomas at prop, Ross Batty at hooker – the West Countrymen have risked leaving the current internationals Paul James, Rob Webber and David Wilson on the bench. The same goes for the red-rose lock Dave Attwood, who must watch Stuart Hooper and Dominic Day have first crack at a French side much changed from the one that lost a Top 14 game at Lyon last weekend.Reuse content