There has been a huge amount of hype over Sam Burgess’s code switch as he prepares for life in rugby union and a charge on Bath and England’s number 12 shirt. Whilst there is plenty of expectation, is it actually realistic to expect a player (no matter how talented) to switch codes and play on the biggest stage in less than 12 months?
It has now been confirmed Burgess will be playing in the centres so it seems likely he will be battling it out with established union men like Billy Twelvetrees, Luther Burrell and Brad Barritt for the 12 shirt. Here I take a look at the various factors that could influence Burgess’ ability to break into Stuart Lancaster’s side;
The most fundamental element of playing rugby centres around basic skills, can a player catch, pass and tackle? Fortunately this particular group of skills are transferable from one code to another, simply put if a player has been successful in union, they should have the basic skills necessary to at least compete in league and vice versa.
The issue however comes in the skills necessary to compete in a specific code, in this case union. Fortunately a great deal of this has been removed by the decision to play him in the centres meaning that scrums and line outs are completely removed from the equation whilst mauls are also not going to be a necessity.
The area of concern, as with any league convert, will be the breakdown. Can Burgess learn the nuances of this most technical part of union that still continues to baffle some established union players. This will be an issue both in attack and defence as Burgess must completely relearn this part of the game where previously he has been used to simply letting go of the player or the ball.
Fortunately given the other elements of his game are so strong this means he can spend the majority of his transition period focussing predominantly on this one area of his game. The other question mark remains over his kicking ability, although plenty of international rugby union centres have proven it is not an essential skill to possess.
Verdict – Burgess should have the basic skills necessary to compete but must devote time and energy into learning the breakdown and developing his kicking game.
Burgess has spent his entire rugby league career playing in the forwards. Whilst this may be very different to how the pack operates in union, it means he has not had to focus quite as much on his positioning in open play and has therefore been afforded more of a roaming role which suits his style of play.
If however he intends to be England’s 12 at the World Cup next year then he has a huge amount to learn in terms of positioning. The role of an inside centre is to act as a lynchpin or pivot (depending on your teams style of play) both in attack and defence. Burgess will therefore have to play in a much more structured way or risk leaving his team exposed to all manner of problems.
Verdict – has Burgess have previous experience in the backs he may find this easier, but as is he has a great deal to learn in not a lot of time and must adapt his whole game.
Frankly this isn’t even a consideration, league players are typically much fitter than union players and Burgess has proved he’s capable of going for as long as the rest of them. On top of this he also has size on his side thereby making the transition even easier. The only concern is the lack of a break between his stint in the NRL and next years World Cup.
Verdict – not an issue although he may require a lengthy post World Cup rest.
Burgess’ injury in the NRL Grand Final could see him kept out of action for several weeks at Bath which could be both a blessing and a curse. It means he will be out of action so he doesn’t have as much time to physically prepare, however it does afford him the time to get to grips with some of the more technical sides of the game.
Verdict – far from ideal but does provide him some time to recover physically and also learn the ropes a little better.
Whilst it’s easy enough to assess the physical aspects of his game, the biggest potential issue for Burgess is does he fit? By this I mean will his style of play fit in with what Stuart Lancaster is trying to achieve with his England side. This will come mainly down to can Burgess play a particular style of rugby, but also whether or not he gels with those players around him.
What we need to remember is that the current England squad have been together for a number of years now and have grown and developed as a side over several international tournaments. This means Burgess has a lot to learn and is very much the outside in this instance.
Verdict – potentially this may be one step too far in addition to learning the game from scratch.
As much as I’m desperate to see Burgess starring for England next year, I think the World Cup may just be a little too soon for him. That’s not to say he isn’t in with an outside shot but given he not only has to learn the rules from scratch, but also has to learn England’s style and pattern of play he isn’t left with a lot of time to gain big match experience before the World Cup.
There’s no doubting that his injury may be a blessing in disguise affording him a much needed break and some time to learn the more technical aspects of the game. He also clearly has all the raw attributes necessary to success but it seems more likely he will be starring at the World Cup in 2019 – just look at how far Kyle Eastmond has come this season.
Do you think Burgess can make England’s World Cup squad next year?