World Cup fever has finally hit, and it’s that time when we diehard rugby fans can immerse ourselves in wild patriotism for our chosen side. The pubs are full, the grounds are buzzing, and many have lost their partners to the game for the next month and a half (sorry @LWOSThomasLiv). And, after a bonus point win against Fiji last weekend, I couldn’t really have hoped for a better start.
But, for as much as big sporting events with high stakes can unite legions of fans, they can also bring out our inner fanaticism. It is times like this, when fuelled by passion, that our respect for those in the game can somewhat disintegrate. If things are going wrong, blame and judgement is heaped upon whoever is readily available. And it’s this nature to criticise which I believe has been unfairly laden on our Rugby League Convert, Sam Burgess, especially as he is flung again into the media spotlight amidst rumours that he will start against Wales this weekend at Twickenham.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I am by no means a Burgess advocate. Had I been in Lancaster’s shoes, Luther Burrell would have his place in the England camp. Yet, at the same time, I have to feel a little bit sorry for the 26 year old.
In the 10 months he’s been playing rugby union, he’s had his fair share of criticism. He’s been judged by those in the game, including Matt Dawson, Shane Williams, and Will Carling [whose comments were strong enough to justify a follow up phone conversation and a personal apology to the 6’5 centre]. He’s been attacked by those online, including the stream of twitter trolls who have barraged his mentions with abuse since he first signed a union contract. And he’s constantly slammed in our national press because he’s “not yet ready” . What everyone seems to forget, though, is that ready is not his call. It was a call made by Mike Ford back In January of last year when Burgess first signed for Bath, and by Stuart Lancaster later this year who believed him to be a vital part of his World Cup squad.
I have to agree with Sonny Bill Williams that this personal criticism of Burgess since his entry into the world of union is “wrong”. Burgess himself can only do his best. To be ready on his part, he must just continue to try and produce his best rugby week in week out. And that he is doing. He impressed in his 19 minute spell last week against Fiji when the entirety of the world’s eyes were on him. Indeed, he stood out more than Brad Barritt, whose poor performance suggested injury woes, and he made a definite impact as he came off the bench with his style of direct running that helped re-establish momentum at a time where the bonus point seemed unreachable. He is quite clearly learning all the time, and is obviously progressing with every minute on the pitch. Take his main area of criticism – drift defence – which is looking better with each game he plays, whilst his Rugby League influenced style of Blitz defending has seen him make huge tackles, including two incredible hits in Paris on Dimitri Szarzewski and Alexandre Dumoulin. Does he find himself out of position? Yes, I believe he does on occasion. But what more can you expect, the poor kid finds himself in the centre for England but slips right down the numbers at the Rec.
And we can’t see behind the scenes. The reason Lancaster selected Burgess for his squad extends far further than his performance on the pitch. There is a level of respect that the players, even those with far more union experience, carry for him and his natural born style of leadership, which comes across in any personal interviews with the team. We may question it, but Jamie Peacock, a former rugby league colleague, is sure of Lancaster’s choice: “when you’ve been in the battle room of a dressing room or stood shoulder to shoulder with him on a field, you see his ability to lead and deliver… that’s without doubt what Stuart has seen in him”. And, two of his previous head coaches, Mike Ford of Bath and Steve McNamara of England Rugby League, are both equally quick to praise this skill, highlighting how often Burgess “talks about putting the team first”, and his “attitude that says – when the pressure is on – ‘give me the ball, we’ll be all right’”. We saw a small glimpse of this back in Paris, when Burgess was the reasserting presence amongst confusion in the warm up, but we cannot comprehend how far his influence extends within the team without being amongst them. With no expertise or personal experience, I am prepared to trust Lancaster’s decision in this respect for the time being.
So, do I think the Rugby World Cup is the best time to learn the Union game? No, not at all. Had I the power, Burgess would probably be watching events unfold from the stand. But that’s a criticism of Lancaster. I can’t fault the effort that Burgess is putting in to be the best he can be, and he’s really not doing anything wrong. In my eyes, he doesn’t deserve the constant stream of disapproval throughout the national press, and I hope that, come Thursday’s announcement, we can embrace Lancaster’s starting XV with respect. He’s a big boy, he can [and he will] cope with the critics. In fact, at 20 and just about 5’8, I’m pretty sure he’s the one who would look out for me in a fight. But, I’m not quite so small on the internet, and I’ll spare a thought for Slamming Sam Burgess.