At a time when English rugby should have been taking in the plaudits for hosting a world class international tournament, it is instead airing all its dirty laundry in the most public of arenas; with a giant Sam Burgess shaped stain smeared across it.
The ensuing fallout from England’s failure has been nothing short of a disaster and the Burgess saga, resulting in his swift return to Rugby League, highlighted perfectly the failings of English Rugby, Burgess himself, and the sensationalist media circus that followed them around in the process.
From February last year, when Burgess announced he had decided to switch codes, signing for Bath and leaving behind his established rugby league reputation, a media frenzy has accompanied his every move. Every pass, every tackle was watched and scrutinised by onlookers, with journalists desperate to create an archetypal figurehead, a Jonny Wilkinson circa 2003 icon that would occupy the back pages and fill the column inches.
This fixation on one man’s inclusion in the squad only served to dismantle the team togetherness and sprit that had slowly started to gain momentum in the build up to the World Cup. The incessant questioning at every press conference began to border on the ridiculous and the influence of the media in fuelling a sense of disharmony and uncertainty through the camp should not be underestimated. However, a media mob unsettling a team during a national tournament is quite frankly nothing new and England’s coaching staff should have been strong enough to ignore the sensationalist cries and select a squad based on merit, not the popular voice.
The selection of Sam Burgess was wrong. Simply, wrong. This is not spoken from some great position of hindsight or bandwagon jumping. This is based purely on common sense, watching a man who had only played 20 professional Rugby Union matches before selection. With Bath struggling to identify Burgess’ best position, eventually giving him a run of games in the back row, to be selected by England as a centre was mystifying.
Placed in the most competitive group of the tournament, coming up against high quality well-drilled units, this was surely not the time to be taking gambles on an unproven talent at that level in such a critical decision making role. He was just squeezed into the team in any position they could find through fear of a non-selection backlash. It appeared he wasn’t good enough to dislodge the current set of flankers therefore, with nobody really making the centre positions theirs, it was seen as an opportunity to fit him into selection.
Let’s be clear, his selection by itself was not the key reason for the failure at the World Cup; however, it pointed to Stuart Lancaster and a management team unsure of themselves and their players. On top of that, with Andy Farrell being a league convert himself, he should have known of the difficulties in making the switch, which made the move all the more disappointing.
This whole debacle has been ridiculous and it is impossible for it not to have had an effect on Sam, but his decision to walk away from it all is a frustrating one.
No doubt about it, the man has all the attributes to make the code switch a success but he needed to give it time and in return be given it. After storming his way into the game on a wave of expectation, the realisation that he was no longer the kingpin and that there are people better than him was a reality check. Even in the aftermath of the tournament, most people would have expected that the steel and determination of ‘Slammin’ Sam’ to come through and to prove his worth. Instead it seems the towel has been thrown in already.
Regardless of what happened, Burgess’ reputation within Rugby League would never have been in doubt and he could have gone on to forge a similar standing in the 15-man game yet, instead he may just be another name added to the list of failed converts.
The whole situation has been a very uncomfortable saga to watch and the pressure placed on Burgess looks as if it’s just all a bit too much – a decision he may regret, English rugby union will regret and also the people who watch the sport.