RWC 2015 England vs Wales: 'Some want Sam Burgess to fail, but he won't' says former coach Brian Noble

Sam Burgess will be focus of attention from both rugby codes when he faces Wales, but his old league coach Brian Noble tells Dave Hadfield he has no doubt his skills are transferrable

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The Independent Online

The scrutiny of the rugby union world will be fixed obsessively on Sam Burgess this weekend, but the pressures on him will be nothing compared with some of the traumas he has already overcome.

For some going about their rugby business in Bradford, the main issue might not be how the Bulls fare against Halifax as they try to move a step closer to a return to Super League, but how one of their old boys acquits himself on his most demanding assignment yet in the 15-a-side code, when he starts against Wales at inside centre, a position he has hardly played in a game he hardly knows.

Most of the rugby union media seem to be waiting for him to fail. Be ready for a rousing chorus of “We Told You So” alongside “Swing Low”.

The coach who first signed him and made him a professional rugby player, however, has no trace of a doubt that Burgess will survive and thrive under that spotlight. “The ra-ras have got their knives sharpened for him,” says Brian Noble. “I think they’re going to be very disappointed.”

Noble, a former Great Britain as well as a former Bulls coach, claims little credit for identifying and signing Burgess. “It wasn’t exactly rocket science,” he says. “When you see someone of that size, at that age, with that ability, it’s a bit of a no-brainer.

“We went to see him play for his junior club, Dewsbury Moor, and made him a very big offer. We had to; everyone else was after him, because he was so obviously outstanding.”

There was another sense in which the teenage Burgess stood out.

His father, Mark, who had also been a professional league player – although not in Sam’s class – was terminally ill. Much of the care he needed came from Sam, the second of four brothers.

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Burgess on the charge for England against Fiji in the World Cup (AP)

“I don’t know whether it toughened him up, but it was certainly a life experience that most of us don’t have,” says Noble. “I don’t think people quite realise just how much he had on his plate, with all that and starting out as an elite athlete. He had to grow up pretty quick, although I must say that he never lost his sense of fun.”

What wasn’t as much fun for opposing teams was trying to stop him.

“He had everything,” Noble says. “Good hands, good feet, athleticism, size.”

Still in his teens, Burgess was the best forward in Super League. He was also displaying the sort of adaptability that might be needed tonight, equally capable of playing down the middle as a prop or causing havoc out wide as a loose forward.

He is unique among modern forwards in that he can play a pure power game or mix it up with surprisingly delicate offloads. League opponents were never quite sure what to expect from him in attack. They knew what was coming when he defended, however – driving tackles into the body that made their teeth rattle; and he would willingly do it for the full 80 minutes, if required to do so.

All that brought him to the attention of the Australian club South Sydney Rabbitohs, where signing him was very much the personal project of the owner, Russell Crowe. Burgess himself got the film-star treatment in Australia, as the glitter rubbed off on him, without it appearing to go to his head.

His three brothers followed him into the Souths team and two of them, the twins Tom and George, into the England side. One of the iconic images of his time in Australia was his mum, Julie, watching the four of them playing together for the Bunnies for the first time. What Sam will never be forgotten for in Sydney, though, is leading the Rabbitohs to their first title since 1971, playing almost all of the Grand Final knowing he had fractured his jaw. It was a stunning example of the almost reckless physical courage that inspires others around him.

There are other factors involved in both cases, but there is no dodging that both Bradford and Souths went into an observable decline after he left. Coincidence does not adequately explain it.

“He’s still an absolute hero over there,” says Noble of his stature in Australia – and he has no doubts about Burgess’s ability to become a hero in another code.

“There’ll be pressure, but he’s never yet failed to cope with pressure. He’s done well whenever he’s come on.

“He’s green, but he immediately gives England that physicality in midfield to match the likes of Jamie Roberts. I’m pretty confident it’s not going to be a match won on technicalities.”

Besides, it seems to some looking in from across the great rugby divide that a degree of freshness, bordering on naivety, might not be entirely a bad thing, if it frees him from the constraints under which others in that position, to rugby league eyes, seem to operate.

Put another way, Burgess, only 20-odd games into his union career with Bath, does not yet know that you are not supposed to be able to run right through people.

“I’ve heard people say that he needs more experience, but the World Cup only comes around every four years and you want your best players out there,” says Noble, whose distinguished league CV also includes a significant amount of consultancy work with rugby union teams.

“It’s a brave decision for Stuart Lancaster to pick Sam, but it’s the right decision. It’s a brave decision to pick Owen Farrell, but that’s the right decision too. England need Sam Burgess.”

The prevailing attitude towards Burgess among rugby league supporters is that he is “one of our own” on loan to the opposition, although there is continued perplexity over his profile now being so much higher than it was when he was expected to do so much more in the 80 minutes.

Rumours have been rife that he will be back at South Sydney after the World Cup. Those rumours have been vehemently denied, just as they were when he left Bradford, Souths... and probably Dewsbury Moor as well. That is the nature of the business these days.

Noble will be watching his former charge tonight from his sofa in Bradford, but he does not believe for a moment that he has seen the last of him in a league jersey.

“I think he’ll go back to South Sydney. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if he switched to league and switched back again,” he says.

“If he has a role model, it would be Sonny Bill Williams, who has already shown that you can build a career like that, picking and choosing what you want to do.”

For that cherry-picking strategy – which is rumoured also to include the sevens at the next Olympics – to work, Burgess needs to be in demand from both codes and both sides of the world.

If anyone can achieve that, his old mentor Noble believes, Sam can.

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