The flow of rugby league players attempting to break into union has been relatively quiet since the early 2000’s, although the trend is greater in the southern hemisphere giants of Australia and New Zealand. There have been high profile cases in Britain such as Andy Farrell, Iestyn Harris and Chris Ashton more recently, although none more successful than Jason Robinson. Some have achieved notable club success without the international acclaim. None have divided opinion quite like the Sam Burgess decision.
Opinion Split on Burgess Decision
Slammin’ Sam came to rugby union with the explicit intention to break into the England side ahead of the 2015 World Cup. He was at the top of his game in Australian rugby league having taken the NRL by storm and made one of the toughest leagues in the world into his playground. The legend of the 2014 NRL final came with him; Burgess broke his cheekbone in the first minute and continued on with a man-of-the-match performance to help the South Sydney Rabbitoh’s to their first Grand Final win in 43 years. He was destined to be a dominant force in rugby union and fans across the country were quickly intent on seeing him smash through the midfield from the centre positions.
Yet with two years left on his contract at Bath Rugby he made the decision to return to Australia, to return to his family and walk away from a game in which he’d made the England squad, got his first international cap and represented his country in the World Cup. Not quite the outcome of that tournament that anyone in a white jersey would have wished for but a hugely impressive start to a career nonetheless.
The reaction has been overwhelming. And very split. The rugby union traditionalists have provided a mixture of outrage, disappointment and disbelief at the handling of the whole situation while league advocates have rubbed their hands with glee and welcomed him back with open arms. There was even gossip of Burgess being immediately added to the England league squad mid series against New Zealand, something that rightly did not materialise.
Bath coach Mike Ford labelled Burgess as soft, and that he didn’t have the stomach for the fight. Other well respected pundits were equally as confused as to his immediate departure following the World Cup, but many chose to question the handling of the player rather than the player’s decision himself.
However, Burgess’ admission that he simply didn’t get the same level of intensity out of union that he did in league has simply reinforced the difference between the two codes. Cartoons were immediately issued on social media sites characterising union players as soft and league players as specimens of physical perfection. One depicted a stereotype overweight union forward alongside a picture of Burgess strolling on the beach topless, with the sarcastic observation that Burgess didn’t have the stomach for the union game.
This banter between the union and league has always bubbled away beneath the surface and risen publicly a couple of times, most notably when Bath Rugby took on Wigan Warriers in 1996, and Sale repeated the concept in 2003 against St Helens. Separate contests using league and union rules that only really served to highlight the strength of the teams in their representative code.
There are clearly some major differences between the two games and the fitness requirements and demands on the body reflect that. Both games have slack time within them and equally both games can be played at a ferocious pace. Burgess wanted more involvement, more often, something that Bath conceded by moving him to the back row. Here, however, there is a much greater technical component of the game and much more learning to do. It is one thing to position yourself in midfield and be supported by team-mates on either side, it’s another thing entirely to understand the scrum, line out, ruck and maul and make effective decisions in a split second under extreme pressure
The technical aspect in league is blunted somewhat by the tackle count. That’s not to under-value the game; some of the handling in league is sublime and the off-load has become the benchmark in both codes. However the constant physicality of the game is immense and the individual man on man contest across the pitch is in stark contrast to union where going into contact un-supported is tantamount to losing possession. In converting to union, Burgess’ attacking potency, determination to make ground, his unflinching ability to smash his way through opponents was weakened considerably by the need to retain possession and not get isolated.
Stopping people in their tracks and putting in huge hits was never an issue and showed itself on a number of occasions but the reality of being the big, strong, talismanic figure many hoped he would be, simply didn’t materialise. And maybe it was that figure that Burgess himself wanted to be.
And therein is the debate. The two games are different. Some players have proven their ability to be flexible, adapt and conquer both codes, others have tried and not reached the heights their reputations suggested. Some, like Burgess, by his own admission, didn’t find the game to his liking. Whether he should have stayed, seen out his contract and tried to understand the game better, and by default become a better player in the process, is another question.
In the modern era when money rules in most sports, you could argue that his decision simply reflects a love for a sport that could never be replaced. And maybe, as stated, his desire to be back with his family says a lot about a guy that had to care for his father from a young age. Professionalism in sport is definitely about being loyal to your employer, committed to a cause and dedicated to doing everything to achieve that. Having a professional attitude to sport is also about recognising circumstances when those things don’t align and in a game like rugby, regardless of code, it has to be about heart.
Burgess made his choice and he chose league. In doing so he created a maelstrom of negative opinion and criticism, but he also generated the kind of public welcome back into league that shows the true nature of his following. Opinion remains split over which sport is best; nothing has changed in that respect, but Burgess’ story has simply highlighted the differences and reinforced opinions in both codes of the game.
Russell Crowe, the Rabbitoh’s owner, called Burgess the ‘sparkly eyed man’, a reference to the ability to stand above others, to lead from the front, to inspire people around him to greater levels of achievement. Rugby union hasn’t seen the best of Burgess, it hasn’t seen the ‘sparkly eyed man’, but Burgess has seen union and chosen league over it. The England rugby league team will be better for it, English rugby union will wonder what could have been.