(30th Oct 2014)
Oh, what could have been. On this day three years ago, Bath unveiled the next big hope of English rugby union, former league superstar Sam Burgess. First announced in February of that year, Burgess’ first day as an official Bath player was spent doing the media rounds hyping his long-awaited defection.
Even at the time, Burgess’ playing position was unclear, as was the timescale for his debut, having fractured half his face in the first minute of the NRL final. Still, an air of genuine excitement surrounded the move, and big things were, if not expected, certainly hoped for.
Fellow league converts like Jason Robinson talked up the former Rabbitoh’s potential for stardom, while All Black great John Kirwan called for calm, acknowledging that the move was a huge risk with no guarantee of success. Smart fella.
Burgess’ debut came less than a month after arriving in the country, taking to the field for the final quarter of Bath’s win over Harlequins. On this occasion, he replaced Horacio Agulla at inside centre, though would soon be shifted to blindside flanker by the club.
Initial performances were good. Not amazing, perhaps, but certainly good for someone new to the game. Burgess was a bona fide legend in rugby league, and had clear potential to develop into a solid union player given time.
He wasn’t given time. Instead, Burgess was fast-tracked into the England squad less than twelve months after making his union bow. 2015 was a World Cup year, and Stuart Lancaster clearly saw Burgess as having the X-Factor, the secret weapon that could push a promising England squad on to glory.
Never mind that he was selected at centre despite playing most of his recent rugby in the back row, or the fact that he was chosen ahead of the in-form Luther Burrell. Burgess was going to single-handedly win the World Cup, then save Gotham and rescue the princess.
After England’s disastrous World Cup campaign, Burgess was made something of a scapegoat for their failings. Many turned to Burgess as, if not the cause, then at least the symbol for Lancaster’s failed regime.
He fell out of favour and, despite featuring in Bath’s Premiership final defeat to Saracens in 2015, much of the stardust had long since rubbed off. Near enough exactly one year after his much-heralded unveiling, Burgess was off, returning to rugby league with South Sydney Rabbitohs
The fallout was acrimonious to say the least. Burgess was accused of failing to “put in the hard graft” as his attitude, work ethic and abilities were called into question. Burgess for his part spoke of systematic bias on the part of the media, ex-players and coaches who set him up to fail.
Even now, years later, Burgess’ short-lived union career is still a hot topic in rugby circles and generates controversy whenever it rears its head:
Given the fanfare with which his arrival at The Rec was greeted, it’s interesting to read those articles with the benefit of hindsight, and think how differently it could have all turned out.
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