Sam Burgess: Bath and England's next big thing

After only three starts for Bath, Sam Burgess has been called up by England’s  Saxons B team and has a World Cup spot in his sights, reports Hugh Godwin

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The Independent Online

Sam Burgess accumulated a number of nicknames in his rise to rugby league grandmaster. “Slammin’ Sam” is the best-known, then there’s the “sparkly- eyed man” as his “mate” Russell Crowe came to describe him, or the affectionate “Footy Sam”, coined by Burgess’s girlfriend Phoebe for the deadeyed character in the zone on or near a match day.

No one, publicly at least, has yet called Burgess “face-ache” but that would also be apt, as he deals with the effects of the five plates and 21 screws inserted into his right cheek after the infamous head-to-head clash with Canterbury Bulldogs’ James Graham in the first minute of last October’s NRL final in Sydney. Even before the pain recedes, he might just have completed a remarkable transformation to be an England rugby union World Cup player.


“I got another hit on it later in the game,” Burgess recalls of the final, when with stunning resilience he played out the 80 minutes to help the South Sydney Rabbitohs – co-owned by Hollywood star Crowe – win their first title in 43 years. “In surgery they had to damage my face a lot more to sort it out. My lip and my gums around it are numb. The nerves are really sensitive up around the scar; it sends shooting pains around my face. It just feels unnatural – but it’s okay, it’s strong. The surgeon said between one and two years, it should start feeling normal again.”

The final topped out Burgess’s league career of 15 Great Britain and England caps – and a try in the tumultuous World Cup semi-final loss to New Zealand at Wembley in 2013. Next Friday, after just two months playing rugby union for Bath – three starts and four appearances off the bench for the first team, two starts for the reserves – he will pull on England’s white jersey again, only this one bears the RFU red rose. “I’m getting goosebumps just thinking about it,” he said. “It’s been ages since I sang the national anthem.”

Sam Burgess celebrates scoring his first try in rugby union

Appearing for the second-team Saxons away to Ireland A in Cork will not guarantee Burgess a place in September’s World Cup any more than the promise from head coach Stuart Lancaster to call him in for training with the seniors during the Six Nations, which start with England playing Wales in Cardiff on 6 February. But it places Burgess a lot closer than when he was a lad growing up in Dewsbury, in that league heartland of hard-bitten mill towns south of Leeds.

“It would be silly to sit here and say I wasn’t looking to be a part of the World Cup,” says Burgess at Bath’s training HQ. “That’s a great goal. But I don’t want to be disrespectful; I know how hard players have worked to be in a position to make the squad.”

For starters he has five England backs as team-mates at Bath in George Ford, Kyle Eastmond, Jonathan Joseph, Anthony Watson and Semesa Roko-  duguni.

Today their focus will be beating Glasgow to qualify for the quarter-finals of the European Champions Cup. Adding Burgess, at no little expense, they took on the task of turning a “poster boy” forward in league into a union centre, or eventually a flanker.

Someone not a million miles from Bath’s coaching staff confided before Christmas that he believed the World Cup would come too soon. Burgess himself admits he was thinking more about the possibility of playing for England before he arrived than he is now, such has been the unexpected complexity of his new sport. But his story already has a high tariff of what-ifs that ended in affirmation.

“League can be simplified,” Burgess says, “into three areas that, if we were good at them, we’d win the game. Whereas in union, there’s so many different aspects: field position, the scrum, the line-out, the ball presentation, the delivery from nine to 10 – before you can actually get into a rhythm. There’s got to be more parts of the machine in order before you get the final product. Which is really interesting. I like the strategy of it.”

Burgess signs autographs for Bath fans

Crowe’s “sparkly-eyed” epithet was about a leader giving every last drop of effort on the field and being dutiful to family off it. Mark Burgess was a man with a barrel chest and four sons: Luke, Sam and the twins Tom and George. The boys would go on to play together for South Sydney, joined in living Down Under by their mum, Julie. But their dad had passed away from motor neurone disease in 2007.

Sam had been his main carer, carrying him up and down stairs as the horrible illness ravaged his bones. Mark was an amateur of note; Sam represented Great Britain at the age of 18, and moved from Bradford Bulls to the Rabbitohs in 2010.

At 6ft 5in, with good pace and hands and a magical sidestep, he prospered in league’s one-on-one combat: the “slam” in Slammin’ Sam. His YouTube showreel is stuffed full of clashes that a union follower might commentate on as: “Penalty… penalty… penalty… oh, borderline legal – good one!” Burgess acknowledges this disparity with lip-smacking relish: “There aren’t as many chances for that collision. When you get your chance, you’ve got to take it.” Ask Wasps’ Ben Jacobs, shaken to his core by a tackle from Burgess in what was critically regarded as a breakthrough performance two weeks ago.

Bath have important Premiership matches coinciding with the Six Nations, and Burgess expects this to be “a good period when I should be knocking some 80 minutes out.” And training with England? “Stuart [Lancaster] mentioned it, quite casually, that he wants to show me the set-up, have a quick look at how they train and build up to a Test match.

“I’ll absorb as much information as I can. There’s a lot going on but it doesn’t worry me at all. In Australia the environment was unbelievably high-pressured; rugby league is the No 1 sport in Sydney, like football is here.”

Stuart Lancaster this week named Sam Burgess in the England Saxons squad

It is a reminder that Burgess has swapped countries again, as well as codes. “It’s been harder than I thought, leaving the family, but walking round Bath, the vibe’s great – you just need a few more jumpers on. I’m on Instagram, following my brothers, all my ex-team mates in Sydney, putting pictures up of themselves sunbathing. My brother sent me a picture of his car thermometer: 36C. I sent one back, from my car at seven in the morning: -1C.”

And the upside? Briefly Burgess mimes a man racking his brains. Then he mentions a good cup of tea and being “back on the pints, not the schooners”, although it transpires he drinks lager and the odd Guinness, not Yorkshire bitter. We move on before getting into brass bands or Happy Valley.

If the story ever becomes Hollywood material, we can guess the director. “Me and Russell speak two or three times a week,” says Burgess of the A-listed New Zealander. “He’s such a wise man, so smart, I’ve learnt a hell of a lot from him over the years. He’s due in London in March and we’ll catch up then. He’s interested to see how I get on – we might even get him into being an England supporter, if I get in there.”

In This Sporting Life, the great rugby league film of the 1960s set in Wakefield, near Dewsbury, the hero Richard Harris says: “We don’t have stars in this game, that’s soccer.” Adoring rugby’s team ethos as he does, Burgess would be happy to repeat it. He might also disprove it.


Ten rugby league players have played union for England during the open era:

John Bentley - Union 1988-89; League 1995-96

Barrie-Jon Mather - League 1995; Union 1999

Jason Robinson - League 1993-99; Union 2001-07

Henry Paul - League 1995-2001; Union 2002-06

Andy Farrell - League 1993-2001; Union 2007

Lesley Vainikolo - League 1998-2005; Union 2008

Chris Ashton - League 2006; Union 2010-

Kyle Eastmond - League 2009; Union 2013-

Joel Tomkins - League 2010-14; Union 2013-returned

Shontayne Hape - League 1999-2008; Union 2012-retired