England vs Ireland: Sam Burgess debate drags on after hits and misses

Opinion will remain divided over code convert with this mixed display

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The earth failed to move. Choirs of angels did not clutter the flightpath into Heathrow, in order to sing the praises of a new king. Sam Burgess merely continued his apprenticeship, leaving no one the wiser whether he will eventually emerge as urban myth or global magician.

The self-confessed “Northern lad” who, according to his social media biography “plays a bit of ruggers” delivered a 20 minute cameo performance at Twickenham which could be interpreted according to taste or prejudice.

Those ready to anoint him as the symbol of selectorial boldness and foresight will draw comfort from the hit he inflicted on Ian Madigan in the dying seconds. The ball was projected into space, the Irish defence was momentarily disorientated, and a capacity crowd bayed in primitive pleasure. Those who see him as an over-promoted arriviste will dwell upon his immediate failure to even fulfil the basics of his rugby league training, in offloading a forward pass to Owen Farrell in a promising attacking situation.



The RFU’s official Twitter feed strangely omitted to name him as culprit, though it eulogised the durability and dexterity of the chance’s creator, Richard Wigglesworth. There was an audible groan when Burgess lost possession again in a subsequent crash ball move.

His white boots left few footprints. Head coach Stuart Lancaster did not feel the need to mention him in his post-match press conference, bizarrely staged in opposition to a dire pub rock band who were next door, attempting to entertain the swaying, alcohol-fuelled masses.

The cohesion and understanding Brad Barritt and Jonathan Joseph showed, in their first match in tandem in the centre, was infinitely more significant, given the subtext of an England squad which needs to coalesce quickly at the World Cup.

These are tense times but, for the moment, permission to panic is denied. There was enough substance to England’s fitful performance, against a strangely passive Ireland team, to ward off the nightmare images of impending embarrassment.

The running was hard and direct. There was an element of constructive rage to the collective performance, following defeat in France. Jonny May’s assertive response to the pressure of playing for his place typified the incremental individual progress so beloved of elite level coaches.

England passed the examination set for all modern teams, of whatever code, since they worked hard and efficiently without the ball. Yet they lacked the requisite ruthlessness, especially in a first half they dominated.

This is what all the froth and nonsense, the vacuous social media campaigns and stage-managed patriotism, is all about: an authentic challenge, a call to arms beyond the comprehension of those who have taken it upon themselves to market this England team as a must-have accessory.

We are now into the phase in which the sports psychologists, and the masters of the dark arts of marginal gains, merge into the background. Their input will be measured scrupulously, but can never fully compensate for the more unpredictable element of the human spirit.

Tolerance of failure is minimised when supporters are expected to pay £160 for a third-tier World Cup ticket. England’s players may think they are inured to public expectation, because of their exposure to the tribal rite of the Six Nations championship, but they have seen nothing yet. Perception, as ever, is more important than reality. Lancaster was, inevitably, asked about the ill-judged decision of Rob Andrew, the RFU’s embattled operations director, to hedge his bets by suggesting this England squad will “peak in two or three years”. 

The debate about being sufficiently seasoned is, in many ways, an insignificant diversion. Though the starting fifteen sent out by Lancaster yesterday had 419 caps between them, some 200 short of the head coach’s ideal total, South Africa’s winning team in 1995 had only 178 caps between them. Some sides simply seize the moment, and rise above assumptions of their natural limits.

Lancaster identified England as “one of six or seven teams” who could win the World Cup without being unequivocal that they will do so. He has little wriggle room, given that Ian Ritchie, an RFU chief executive whose eye rarely strays from the bottom line, concluded in the spring that England’s narrow failure to win the Six Nations Championship was “utterly unacceptable”.

His response to the calamity of early elimination from the World Cup can be easily imagined.

Lancaster insisted his priority was to assess England’s initial World Cup opponents, Fiji, who play Canada at the Stoop today. Yet he knew the final warm-up match would be placed into the context of recent progress made by their principal rivals in the obligatory Group of Death.

Australia have recently inconvenienced the All Blacks, and Wales sit three places above sixth-placed England in the world rankings. They have greater experience, more Lions veterans, and a coaching team, in Warren Gatland, Shaun Edwards and Rob Howley, who go for the jugular with unerring accuracy and ferocity.

They have their own problems to solve, following their final preparatory game against Italy last evening. Whether Sam Burgess will be another, when they play England at Twickenham on the evening of 26 September, is still in the lap of the rugby gods.