There has not been the slightest indication from the England coaching hierarchy that they have abandoned their wildly ambitious plan to make a Test-class centre out of the rugby league convert Sam Burgess in time for this autumn’s World Cup.
It is highly likely that the Yorkshireman will be included in the red-rose training squad due to be named in a weeks time. The problem? The men working with Burgess at club level believe he is a blind-side flanker.
“When Sam arrived we wanted to get him on the pitch – and did that by using him in midfield, while giving him a couple of runs in the back row in the second team,” said Mike Ford, the Bath head coach. “I think that was confusing him. Then we played away at Toulouse in the European Champions Cup. Kyle Eastmond and Jonathan Joseph were brilliant at centre that night and afterwards Sam came to me and said, ‘I’m a No 6, aren’t I?’ That’s a true story.
“In the end, I felt we were messing about with him, so he’s going to stay in the back row with us. If we play another three games this season with him there, he’ll have started six matches out of six in the position. And if he does that – and keeps improving as he has been – I think England will be in a good place to pick him, especially as he’ll offer them some versatility.”
All this flies in the face of the grand plan, as outlined (with some reservations) by the England boss Stuart Lancaster, whose fascination with Burgess the centre is significantly greater than his interest in Burgess the flanker.
While Ford believes the league international’s “phenomenal work rate” makes him a perfect back-row fit, Lancaster appears to see him as a big, powerful solution to the red-rose problem at No 12, even though the newcomer has no kicking game to speak of and is unlikely to win many 100-metre sprints.
For his part, Burgess chose his words carefully. “It’s been great for me to see the game through both sets of eyes,” he said. “I’ve played only three games in the back row, but I have good people around me who will only help me get better. I know I’m not the greatest at the breakdown, but I’ve just had an unbelievable few weeks and I’m looking forward to seeing where it goes over the next few weeks.
“I don’t want to be pigeonholed: I grew up in league switching between three or four positions in the same game, and while union is more specific, I’d be happy to go from No 6 to No 12 if that’s what the team needs.
“As for England, I’d never say I didn’t think I was ready. It’s out of my control, but if the chance comes along, I’ll put up my hand and give it my best shot.”
If Burgess went even close to offering a controversial opinion, it was on the subject of challenges. Which was the greater: playing professional league in Australia as a teenager or swapping codes? “It’s a bold statement and it will probably make a headline, but I’d say coming to union,” he replied. “Moving to Australia was tough, but I was a young man who’d already played Test rugby. This is a brand new game.”
Harlequins have announced that the wing, Tom Williams, one of the men most heavily implicated in the fake blood scandal that brought the club to its knees in 2009, will retire at season’s end and take up an academy coaching role.