Six Nations 2014: Stuart Lancaster plays down talk of Sam Burgess switch
Stuart Lancaster looked just a little exasperated when the hype surrounding England's meeting with Scotland on Saturday was overtaken by talk of a hypothetical cross-code switch that may or may not bring the rugby league international Sam Burgess into the union game in time to chase a place in the squad for next year's World Cup.
But while the head coach was keen to distance himself from the subject, he never once went close to saying "never". Instead he credited Burgess with being a "grounded, down-to-earth northerner, which helps".
Lancaster is one of those himself, of course, which is why he acknowledges one of the fundamental truths of the union-league relationship: namely, that English league players moving to the 15-man game are generally more effective the further away they are from the forward pack.
There are exceptions, of course. Stephen Myler has made significant strides as an outside-half playmaker at Northampton and Kyle Eastmond has shown flashes of game-breaking ability as an inside centre at Bath. But Jason Robinson was far and away the most striking success, and he spent his entire England career many a long mile from the heavy mob.
Burgess, currently playing in Australia with the successful South Sydney Rabbitohs and in the early stages of a long-term contract, operates as a forward in league, often as a prop. It seems that Bath, the Premiership club said to be leading the chase for his services, see him as a potential inside centre – a move that raises the spectre of Andy Farrell's cross-code shift in 2005. Farrell, the current England backs coach, would be the first to admit that things did not go entirely to plan, largely because he made the switch late in his career and then ran into injury hassles that effectively stunted his growth as a union performer. But as Burgess has only just turned 25, he would have much more time to learn the ropes.
Even so, Lancaster expressed grave doubts over any rugby league specialist's ability to get up to speed union-wise in time for the global gathering in the autumn of next year. "It would be a challenge, big time," he said. "The technical nature of union makes it very difficult and given the competition that already exists in this England squad, he would have to earn his right to be included by playing high-quality, top-level club rugby at a consistent standard.
"I met Sam last August when I was in Australia and New Zealand looking at rugby league coaching methods, but we didn't discuss any move to union. It's speculation. Before I start thinking about it, it has to happen."
According to Lancaster, there would be no possibility of the Rugby Football Union offering Burgess a central contract. But it is rumoured that it could make a financial contribution to any transfer fee.
Given that any early contractual release would cost Bath an estimated £500,000, the West Countrymen would no doubt be grateful for a few quid from the Twickenham pot, but any such move by the governing body would provoke a lively reaction from the other 11 Premiership clubs.
The coach also denied that Farrell approached Burgess before Christmas with a view to luring him across the divide. However, Lancaster also mentioned that part of his brief was to build an England side that would run well past the 2015 World Cup and added: "When I met Sam I was impressed by him – impressed by his character, his leadership ability."
Talk on the subject was rife in Australia, with reports suggesting that the actor Russell Crowe, who co-owns the Rabbitohs, had been made aware of the situation. "If Sam is desperate to do it, I don't think Russell would stand in his way," said Burgess's representative in the country, James Erskine.
"Having said that, Sam has committed to a contract here and he's not the kind of guy who walks away from responsibilities, so there'd have to be a mutual agreement to change it."
For their part, the Rabbitohs contacted all 24,000 club members by email to insist that there had been no approach to them by Burgess's management team, the RFU or any Premiership club.
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