England rugby union fans elated at the prospect of Sam Burgess switching codes from rugby league have been dealt a massive blow after his new club Bath look set to convert the former England rugby league star into a number 8 rather than a centre.
England already possess two excellent options at that position in Billy Vunipola and Ben Morgan, whereas the midfield has been a problem for England since the retirement of Will Greenwood nearly ten years ago. With Burgess’s superb off-loading game, not to mention his raw power in attack and defence, he could have had a similar impact on the international scene to New Zealander Sonny Bill Williams.
In fact, inside centre would be his most natural position. Current incumbent of the 12 shirt, Billy Twelvetrees, is improving after a slow start with England, but Burgess would pose a running threat that Twelvetrees cannot. Indeed, the prospect of Luther Burrell, Manu Tuilagi and Burgess fighting for two spots in the England midfield is mouth-watering.
Instead, Bath, who are stronger in midfield than in the back row, want to play Burgess at number eight. They have young centres Kyle Eastmond and Jonathan Joseph who are on England’s radar, but need some support for South African Francois Louw in the back row. The counter-argument is that Burgess could get over the gain line and offload to Eastmond or Joseph to great effect.
But despite Burgess' skill set, the unique demands of playing in the back row mean it will take Burgess even longer to get to grips with the new code from that position. His running and tackling will be instinctive, but he will have to learn techniques at the line-out and at the scrum, not to mention at the ruck. These, especially the latter, are not skills that can be picked up quickly.
The England management envisaged the dynamic Burgess playing in midfield, but after contractual disputes over the payment of Burgess’s transfer to Bath from Australian league side the Rabbitohs, Bath want their investment to play where they say. The touted idea was that the English RFU would pay some or all of the fee to bring Burgess to union, but this would have been regarded by other Premiership clubs as favouritism towards Bath.
And what of the man himself? Burgess himself may yet have a say in it. He is a superstar in rugby league, and if his ambition is play in the World Cup on home soil in 2015, he may pressure Bath into trying him in the centre. Burgess wants a new challenge, and having starred for England in a home Rugby League World Cup last autumn, there is no doubt he would relish doing the same in union, with bigger crowds and larger global audience.
Indeed, player power seems to be the only hope for Burgess to play at the World Cup or in his most suitable position.