With under a year until the 2015 Rugby World Cup kicks off, discussion has begun around the prospects of host nation England’s prospective chances. Under the continued management of Stuart Lancaster and with the likes of Chris Robshaw and Mike Brown among its ranks, England remain a strong competitor in the race to emerge as champions. As of late one particular player has become available for the national side who might provide the final piece in the jigsaw of potential England victory, with Sam Burgess transitioning from Rugby League to try his hand at Rugby Union. Having found significant success in Rugby League, many are keen to see if he is able to translate that success into his new career in Rugby Union.
While shifting between disciplines is a demonstrably challenging undertaking, Burgess’ exceptional career in Rugby League suggests the character and quality necessary for such a change. So valued was he by eventual club the South Sydney Rabbitohs, with whom he spent four years after arriving from Bradford Bulls in 2010, that co-owner Russell Crowe personally convinced him to join. Excelling in Australia, Burgess’s final game for the Rabbitohs demonstrated the determination to succeed that has characterised his professional rugby career. Burgess lined up with a Rabbitohs team that achieved its first grand final victory in 43 years with a commanding 30-6 win over the Canterbury Bulldogs in the NRL grand final, becoming the first Englishman to ever lift the trophy. Resulting from his heroics during his final season in Rugby League, having previously announced his intention to move to Rugby Union’s Bath, Burgess was awarded the title of International Rugby League Player of the Year. Kept in Australia due to treatment for his cheek, Burgess was able to personally receive his award in Brisbane, saying “I’m really happy with how the year went with South Sydney and for the thousands of fans who have stuck with the club”.
Its little surprise, following his exemplary career thus far, that those within Rugby Union are eager to see how Burgess’ skill set translates to his new discipline. Endorsements have rung since Burgess’ move to Bath was announced. Jason Robinson, a fellow League-Union convert who enjoyed much success in both fields, has backed Burgess to match the high expectations that inevitably go along with so high a reputation. Robinson himself embodies a particular hopefulness; as questions surround how quickly Burgess might adapt to the XV code, with the World Cup just 11 months away, Robinson’s near-immediate conversion (moving to Union in November 2000 and playing for England by the following February) stands as significant encouragement.
Perhaps the most influential of the endorsements, though, comes from legend of the game Sir Clive Woodward. In his account of Burgess’ prospects, Woodward highlighted Burgess’ unique ability, gained in part through his experience of both of rugby’s disciplines, and the versatility that has seen debate over what position he might occupy for club and country. New club Bath appear to intend that Burgess operate as a forward, while England boss Stuart Lancaster views him as vital addition to England as a centre, with which Woodward agrees.
What both men, and many others besides, do agree on is that Burgess has the potential to adapt and find success in his new surroundings. Lancaster, demonstrably energised by Burgess’ newfound availability, stated of Burgess “he’s got the ability as a player [and] also as a leader. I think he’s got great mental strength” before explaining that, despite the challenges associated with crossing codes, “if there’s a man that can do it I think he can”. Though, by Burgess’ own reckoning, the transition between disciplines might be challenging, his dynamism, versatility and sheer quality make him a unique prospect on both the domestic and international stages. If Burgess is able to translate his success in Rugby League to his Rugby Union he has every chance of proving a lynchpin in any future successes of club and country.
What changes might Burgess make to ensure his transition to Rugby Union proves a success?