Sam Burgess: World Rugby's Biggest Flop of 2015

Daniel Rey@@ReyDanielMFeatured ColumnistDecember 23, 2015

England’s Sam Burgess, centre is tackled by France’s Flugence Ouedraogo, left and France’s Yoann Maestri right, during an international friendly rugby match between England and France at Twickenham stadium in London, Saturday, Aug. 15, 2015. A series of friendly internationals are being held in advance of the upcoming Rugby World Cup that starts in September. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)
Alastair Grant/Associated Press

Sam Burgess was, without doubt, the biggest flop in international rugby in 2015. To be a flop is to perform well below the expectations coaches, fans and the media set, and in the case of Burgess, because these hopes were set too high, he flopped.

The hype around the world’s best rugby league player converting to rugby union in time for the Rugby World Cup in England was the biggest story in European rugby in late 2014 and 2015. So how come he is now back in rugby league?

Why did he flop?

Burgess’ underwhelming performance was mainly due to the lack of time England gave him to adapt to the 15-man code. Quite simply, they asked too much of him, too soon. Writing in the Telegraph, former England centre Will Greenwood noted after news broke of Burgess’ return to league.

In all honesty, it is a damning indictment of union. Genuinely. Embarrassment may be too strong a word but this has not been a good day for the game. One of league’s top players, with a skillset perfectly aligned to modern day union, has decided to leave before he has even had a chance to find out where his best position is.

Adding to the challenge for Burgess was the disagreement between his club, Bath, and the England coaching staff over what his best position would be. Bath saw the former league man as a back-rower, whereas England needed someone to fill their problematic position, inside centre.

Burgess switched between the backs and pack in his first six months at Bath and was beginning to grasp the tricks of the forwards’ trade, when he was selected for England’s training camp and then World Cup squad, as a centre.

The flank was a tough introduction for Burgess given that rucks, mauls, lineouts and union-style scrums were a complete unknown given his league background. He had the raw physical skills, without not the understanding of what to do.

In hindsight, No. 8 would have been a more natural position, allowing Burgess to focus less on rucks and prioritise carrying and defence.

On the face of it, inside centre ought to have been easier than flanker, but Slammin’ Sam was unable to carry the ball purposefully enough at the World Cup to get England over the advantage line. He did not have a poor tournament, but he flopped given all the hype afforded to him.

Realistically, the only position from which one could transfer from league to union in such a short space of time and be a success is to play on the wing in rugby union.

Out wide, raw skills and athleticism are the key demands, which is why England’s most successful converts are Jason Robinson and Chris Ashton. Their transitions were far smoother.

Burgess’ Return to Rugby League

After speculation was raised by the BBC that he was considering a return to Australia, the NRL and the South Sydney Rabbitohs, Burgess, who has an Australian fiancee, opted to be reunited with his brothers and mother down under.

Burgess scores in the Rugby League World Cup semi-final against New Zealand in 2013
Burgess scores in the Rugby League World Cup semi-final against New Zealand in 2013GLYN KIRK/Getty Images

It was the end of a sad story in English rugby union. Expectation turned to hope and then, with England’s early World Cup exit, disappointment.

Many ex-players believe Burgess would have made a success of union, had he been given more time to bed in. England’s finest league-to-union convert Robinson told Sky Sports: “I am just saddened that we didn't get to see the best of Sam because I know this next year would have been the year that he really shone as a player.”

But given the options of superstardom in league or re-building a reputation in union, Burgess made a natural choice.

Sam Burgess, for reasons many of which were out of his control, was world rugby’s biggest flop of 2015.


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