The Scottish cast-off coming up hard in New Zealand rugby
Hamilton Burr was sweeping up leaves on a stud farm in Waikato, carefully tip-toeing past mares he reckoned to be “worth more than me” when his phone rang.
On the other end of the call was a New Zealand rugby recruiter, alerting the former Glasgow back-row that the Hurricanes requested his presence at a pre-season camp. Burr had played club rugby in Hamilton, a season in the Mitre 10 Cup with Waikato, and was still grafting like a maniac on the farm in between. Training with All Blacks and Super Rugby heavyweights? It sounded far too good to be true.
“I thought it was a wind-up,” he told RugbyPass. “I only had WhatsApp on my British phone, I was in the middle of the farm, and I got home and my phone was red-hotel from my agent.
“Literally on the news, Ardie Savea had just been injured. I thought, they’re looking for the wrong replacement here! There were four back-rows injured, so they needed someone else to come in and train.
“I came down for three weeks. It was only meant to be three weeks, but they were relatively impressed with my pre-season and had me back after Christmas. I trained another four weeks into January this year, the All Blacks came back, and I loved every minute I had training and trying to make a name for myself.”
After less than a year in New Zealand, Burr had tasted the promised land of a Super Rugby squad, played in a warm-up game against the Crusaders, and marked the cards of the franchise coaches. It was the pinnacle of his odyssey on the other side of the world, but only one step on a journey he hopes will last some time yet.
Burr decided to target the Mitre 10 Cup in 2018, when it became clear he would not be kept on at Warriors. He had made a handful of substitute appearances in the Pro14 the previous season, but he needed to develop his game, add footballing elan to the brawn provided in spades by his 6ft 5ins frame. Besides, with only two professional teams in Scotland, opportunities to play were fleeting and limited. This was his last chance to make it.
“For young Scottish players, the problem in the system is that there are not many spots,” Burr said. “It is definitely frustrating but it drives competition. There is no shortage of good back-rows.
“I’m not blowing my own trumpet, but it is brave to move to the other side of the world. It is a risk, but certainly for young players, they’ve got to open their horizons.
“In Scotland, they want Scottish players playing in Scotland so they can be managed and it backs up the system straight away. It is frustrating, but it kind of drives you. My aspiration is to get back to Scotland, but you’ve got to go away, make a name for yourself and then come back to it.”
Recently-departed Glasgow coach Dave Rennie helped Burr find his way to Waikato’s amateur league, and allowed him to train with Warriors until it was time to make the move.
He plays with the Hautapu club, and earned his place in Waikato’s squad last season through the explosiveness of his performances and the persistence of his “nagging”. Although Waikato finished a tame sixth of seven teams in the top division, Burr’s experience was exhilarating.
“For young fellas, there’s pressure, but it’s how you handle the pressure, and that’s how you develop in those situations,” he said. “Even the training alongside it is high-tempo, high-running stuff, but it is very focused on skills – there is very little boring, straight-running fitness.
“You have to use to your hands a lot every session, you’re in shapes running, and there’s a huge emphasis on not T-boning into folk because running into the Pacific Islanders straight-on as a wee Scottish lad is not fun and they’ll let you know about it pretty quick.
“Evasion, winning space as opposed to winning the physicality, is very important. You have to do both, obviously, but if you win the space it makes it a lot easier.
“You really up the tempo and back your skillset. So if I find myself in space it’s about having a go, whereas in the northern hemisphere quite often it’s playing structure to the death and not much decision-making around it. Glasgow, with Dave Rennie’s influence, was probably the only team that played that heads-up rugby, and I understand it more now that I’ve come out and experienced it.”
In gobbling up these gems, Burr has encountered some monumental luminaries of the sport. Carlos Spencer, the outrageously talented former All Black fly-half, is among the coaches at the Hurricanes, alongside Roger Randle, himself a New Zealand international. Ross Filipo, yet another All Black, is a development officer with Waikato and frequently looks in on training.
“Carlos Spencer is very good at those micro-skills that he would have played with and transferring them across in what he wants,” he says. “I’d be in the gym, I’d go out and do two minutes of handling with him, then back into the gym for another half an hour, little top-ups.
“[Ex-All Black forward] Ross Filipo is one of the development officers at Waikato, he’ll pop in and do a bit of handling or line-out stuff. There are so many elements that help in your little micro-skill areas that you need to develop.”
So what of that first day with the Hurricanes, stepping in for Savea, one of the game’s most coveted and box-office players, and entering a lair of giants?
“It was certainly a deep-end moment, out of the comfort zone,” Burr said. “Culture is a huge thing over here, and you’ve got to buy in to their principles. You don’t gain respect through talking; you gain it through actions. When you’re on the training pitch, anything goes.
“The amount of learning I took from guys there was phenomenal and that’s upped my game again. Du’Plessis Kirifi at seven, I picked up a heap of breakdown stuff from him.
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“They give positive but blunt feedback, which is very good. You can quite happily ask them back why they saw things a certain way. Even in training at Waikato, I can ask another player for feedback and vice versa, I’m in the position where I can tell him he should have done something differently because that’s the picture I saw of him. In the Canes, they are all very supportive and definitely pushed me on. I’m looking to grow – I’m nowhere near that finished article yet.”
Burr has spent nearly 18 months in New Zealand now, and barring a very brief chat with Edinburgh before the World Cup, there has been little contact from back home. That doesn’t bother him, though. Frankly, why would it? Still only 24, he is turning heads in New Zealand as he strives to grasp every opportunity this burgeoning “dream” presents. And of course, with its swift and decisive actions to tackle the spread of coronavirus, it was virtually as safe a country as possible to sit out the raging pandemic.
He would like to play professionally in Scotland again one day, but there is no rush. Burr has gained far more from his stint in Waikato and Wellington than he would have featuring in Scottish Rugby’s semi-professional Super6. It is a route he heartily endorses for other emerging youngsters who may face a similar logjam between them and a starting berth in the Pro14.
“I don’t want to talk down the Super6, but I don’t think I would necessarily be able to develop in the areas I needed consistently in that competition,” Burr says. “If I wanted to make the next jump, I needed to come across here.
— Stirling County RFC (@StirlingCounty) August 25, 2018
“The way rugby is played in Scotland is still very attritional and direct. It is open in some regard, but it is not at the same tempo as over here.
“For you to go out and develop, the worst thing that’s going to happen is you get some good life experience. Everyone over here is hospitable, they’ll support you as a community and also it’s just a good place to play rugby.
“It’s really attacking-based but they don’t shy away from defence. Everyone talks about Super Rugby being ‘Super Touch’, but it’s anything but. It’s just that the attacks are so quick you can’t set as well, but if you do set, you can put in a big shot.
“It’s new things, new people, new rugby – get out of that single-minded perspective that can happen when you stay in the same place.”
Alongside his rugby and his very cautious horse-tending, Burr is building a career in coach education. Albeit, when a twenty-something Scot rocks up in a room full of gnarled Kiwis to deliver a lesson, eyebrows are raised, good-natured heckles common.
“Aw, so how many World Cups have you won?”
Beyond that, he yearns to star again in the Mitre 10 Cup as Waikato look to seriously better their poor 2019 campaign. They have snapped up the brilliant veteran All Black Liam Messam, a World Cup winner and two-time Super Rugby champion, who has returned from four years at Toulon.
“This year, I’ve kind of stamped my mark and shown that this is what I stand for,” Burr continued. “I’m looking to make a real positive impact and go at it with Waikato. It turned out disappointingly last year, but we’ve got the calibre of player to get ahead in the competition.
“I made the move over here to give rugby a final crack. I felt like I had more to give, something to prove, and I wanted to go out there and do it. I had aspirations to play Mitre 10 and I worked hard for it – I had unfinished business.”
From the leaves on the farm to the skill sessions with Spencer and, before too long, playing in a back-row with Messam, Burr continues to take care of business thousands of miles from home.
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