It does no violence to the truth to suggest that Sam Burgess knows more about Australian sportsmen in general than he does about the particular sport he is currently playing. He spent four years in top-level rugby league with the South Sydney Rabbitohs, which, by arithmetical coincidence, is precisely four times as long as his entire stint in the union game – not that this fairly relevant fact stopped the England coaches Stuart Lancaster and Andy Farrell picking him in their World Cup squad.
So now is the time for Burgess to come into his own. What will he be telling his countrymen about the Australian mentality when the Wallabies head into Twickenham on Saturday for the win-or-bust pool game to end them all?
“The Aussies are playing England, so it’s going to be competitive,” said the Slammin’ One, in a tone of understated bluntness that has been a hallmark of Yorkshire sporting folk for many a long decade. “They’ll come out of the blocks hard and fast because it’s their nature. I know Michael Cheika [the Wallaby coach] pretty well and he’ll be getting his guys fired up.
“What can they expect from us? Heart. If ever there’s a time to put your body and heart on the line, it’s this weekend. A good enough game-plan will also be important, but a winning attitude is what we really must have. There won’t be many bigger occasions.”
Burgess and Cheika go back a significant way, largely because the Englishman is good friends with the Australian’s brother, Paul. Not that there has been any meaningful exchange of views just recently. “It’s business this week,” the midfielder said. “There have been no coffees with Michael for over a year, so there’s not much of a story in it.”
Perhaps understandably, Burgess was in no rush to look backwards at England’s deeply wounding defeat at the hands of Wales on Saturday night. “I don’t want to talk much more about that game – I’ve drawn a line in the sand,” he said. By the same yardstick, he was not particularly keen to talk about other people talking about it, either. Notably Will Carling, one of his forerunners as a red-rose centre, albeit from an amateur era that time is in the process of forgetting.
It was Carling who led the charge of former England internationals keen to tear strips off the national team in the aftermath of last weekend’s failure, perhaps figuring that it was a good way of not being killed in the rush. He ventured the opinion that the players were being treated like schoolboys in a “classroom-orientated environment”, and were therefore found wanting in terms of their on-field leadership.
If Burgess was reluctant to answer back as sharply a some of his colleagues, he managed a response of sorts. “It’s quite funny,” he said. “I’ve not seen him around training – he’s not been around while I’ve been in the squad – so I’m not sure how much inside knowledge he has. I guess there’s not much weight to what he’s saying. He’s making up his own thing, his own opinion from the outside.
“This is our environment – it’s whatever we want it to be. We don’t need to explain what it is just because one person has made a comment. We’re comfortable with what we’re doing.”
Lancaster would not dream of saying so in public – it is, after all, the truth that dare not speak its name – but Burgess has yet to land a significant attacking blow during his brief time in an England shirt. The Wallabies, meanwhile, will bring a seriously successful cross-coder to the Twickenham party in the shape of Israel Folau, a player so gifted that he has made a handsome living in Australian Rules Football as well as in both forms of rugby.
“I’ve just been watching a bit of footage on him now and he’s an unbelievable athlete,” Burgess conceded. “He can move off both feet, he’s strong, he’s able to break tackles, stand up in tackles and make things happen.”
Maybe Burgess will find a way to do something similar. Circumstances being what they are, it would help no end.Reuse content