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'I felt sad that he couldn't speak to me because I had known him for a very long time'

By Liam Heagney

Trending on RugbyPass

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Whatever happened to Luther Burrell, the 15-cap midfielder last seen at Test level when England were blazing a 2016 trail through Australia? He quit union in 2019 to go back to his league roots but faded into Super League anonymity, so frustrated he tore up his Warrington contract a year early just so he could get back playing somewhere, anywhere.

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It was risky business. His handlers warned he could be without a gig for ages but they were wrong. Burrell walked out the Warrington door on September 13 and in the Newcastle door just seven days later, a bite to eat with Dean Richards along the way convincing the 33-year-old his career was best served by inking a two-year Falcons deal.

“It was a mixture of some of the questions he was asking me, the stories he was telling me,” explained Burrell to RugbyPass about why his chit-chat with the Newcastle boss proved so compelling. “He’s very good friends with Dorian West, who was my coach at Northampton. I had a really close relationship with him so we shared some good memories and some good stories there and genuinely, he [Richards] is just a top, top bloke.

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The crazy reaction on the RugbyPass Fanzone to the 2021 Lions squad announcement

“He is someone you want to work for and want to put your body on the line for. As soon as I met him I was on the phone that night to the guys that look after me to say look, let’s get this done, I want to play for this guy and represent this club. Within 24 hours it was done.”

Burrell is chuffed with how it has all since unfolded, his beaming smile over Zoom encapsulating how there is a bouncy spring in his step regardless of some bashed up ribs the other week and the results rut Newcastle were stuck in, losing seven in a row before they hammered London Irish 52-27 this weekend.

The bottom line is he is extremely happy with life again and that is really what matters most. “It’s class,” he said about the bubbly way he is going about his business, his chastening Warrington escapade very much in the rearview mirror. “People can see that as well.”

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Burrell bursts out with laughter when RugbyPass mentions how he has already played more at Newcastle than he did at the Wolves, the league club he joined from Northampton when he opted to return to a code he had last dabbled in as a teenager growing up in Huddersfield.

Sixteen months were spent at the Wire, Burrell playing just nine games and nothing since February 2020. For someone used to wracking up 30 or more appearances a year for the Saints, it was soul-destroying. “When I was there for the first few months they just hammered me with my fitness etc and I kind of figured I wasn’t going to feature too much,” he shrugged.

“I became a professional trainer really so ultimately in the end I made the tough decision to come out of my contract. I’d had another year on my deal but I thought I can’t do another year of that, so I made the choice to exit my contract which was a very hard decision at the time because I wear my heart on my sleeve so to terminate a contract early is always going to be difficult. I wanted to see it out and give it a good crack but it wasn’t meant to be, unfortunately.”

It was a painful lesson that has shaped him in his mid-30s return to the Gallagher Premiership. “The one thing that I really valued was I can’t take this time I have, this opportunity I have, for granted. To go from where I was with Northampton, I was playing like 30 games a season before I left and 36 months prior to before I left I was on tour with England.

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“Then I go a couple of years down the line and I’m in Warrington and I’m not really featuring at all. I was in a very difficult situation and not an enjoyable situation because ultimately I thought I was put on this planet to play rugby, so when you are not doing something that you love it’s very, very difficult.

“The one thing I know is that I can’t take this (Newcastle) opportunity that I have for granted because it is short-lived, it’s a real bubble that you are in so I’m going to try and make the most out of however long I carry on playing for and just enjoy my time because I have had some dark periods throughout my career and the one thing is to not take this opportunity for granted.

“I have come in and racked up some good games. I feel back at home here, it’s great and I’m loving my time in the city now your cafes etc are open. The weather is not too bad either. People were telling me about the weather but it’s not been too bad.”

Bruised by his Warrington inactivity, it would understandable if Burrell knocked about at Newcastle with the focus placed solely on himself, but he is not wired in that selfish way and has instead been busy getting down with the kids, building a rapport with the youngsters at the club and checking they are doing okay with the country coming out of the pandemic and slowly getting into the swing of life as it used to be.

“Definitely, I’m good with the senior academy. I took them all out for a couple of beers a couple of weeks ago. Dean didn’t know that but he probably will now,” he enthused, roaring with laughter at the realisation that he had just outed himself.

“I just want to get to know them. That is what being a squad is about. I knew what it was like for me when I was coming through and I had Andre Snyman, Henry Paul, these guys, big international players, and they did the same with me, came over to see how I am, took me out for some beers and have some craic, seeing what I was made of, and I wanted to do the same.

“So it was good and the good thing with these guys is they have now games to play. They played against England U20s a few days ago. Prior to that, they played Sale so once the A-League returns these guys are going to be able to put their hand up whereas while I was over at Warrington there were no reserve games, there was nothing.

“There was nowhere I could get the experience other than playing first-grade rugby for the Wolves in the Super League. From that aspect, it was always going to be tough for me, but I always go over and spend some time with the senior academy and the younger lads just to make sure they are all doing alright.”

That said, the Newcastle youngsters are a very different bunch of people compared to when Burrell was making his way in the game way back in the mid-noughties at Leeds. “They need to earn their stripes, they have got it easy – they are not getting their head kicked in like we were. 

“I guess the senior academy they are just developing (physically) these days, they are just massive, they are good athletes, it’s really good to see. What is great with Newcastle is they have got a pretty good feeder system with the local universities, clubs and schools around here so yeah, it is very different from when I was coming through but times have changed. 

“I was just coming at the time of the old school mentality where you have got to earn your stripes, you have got to go out on loan and get yourself beaten up and then come back in and earn your stripes. It is very different these days.”

Highlighting these changing times is how Burrell is now an ambassador for Restart, the RPA charity seeking to raise funds and awareness around mental health, something that was once a taboo dressing room subject. It’s something the ex-England midfielder has tried to grapple with himself, explaining how he has been using a life coach these past five years to straighten out things in his own mind.

But the stories that have been emerging about others that have struggled in the game have been jolting, none more so than that of Kearnan Myall, his old childhood buddy from Huddersfield with whom he went on to play with at Leeds and Sale before their careers met a fork in the road.

It was August 2019 when the retired Myall revealed all about his mental struggles in a jolting Guardian newspaper interview. It left its mark on Burrell so when he asked to represent Newcastle for the fortnight promotion of the Premiership’s Restart campaign, he had no hesitation coming forward. “I’m very honoured to have been asked because mental health is a huge issue in sport and general life based on the past couple of years we have had. 

“People have been struggling but have not necessarily had the strength to speak out about it. I have had certain things go on. I have spoken to other players when they have heard my story and they can relate. I was really good friends with Kearnan Myall and he released a report in the newspaper explaining his struggles and I felt sad that he couldn’t speak to me because I had known him for a very long time, so this kind of resonated with me. To have been asked to represent Newcastle and be an ambassador is great because I always say a problem shared is a problem halved. It’s just about being able to speak out and not feeling too vulnerable in that position.” 

“I didn’t understand what Kearnan was going through until I read the article that came out. It really affected me. It’s not that he couldn’t open up to me, he couldn’t open up to anyone until he felt something in his life. I’d known Kearnan for a long time. We grew up together in Huddersfield playing junior rugby and then we were at Leeds together and went Sale together and separated when he went to Wasps and I went to Northampton. 

“When I read his struggles and what he was going through I was thinking well, you actually don’t really understand what some people are going through and in the past couple of years, it has been tough for everybody. That is why I’m really happy to be getting involved with this Restart campaign and really driving and pushing it for the players. 

“What Kearnan did was very, very powerful and in that moment you can have a sense of vulnerability but it goes such a long way and you would probably be surprised how many players and the public can actually relate to your story and the troubles and struggles that you actually felt, so it was very, very powerful and at the time I was very proud of him for being able to get the confidence to be able to speak it about it.”

What about the battles Burrell has personally encountered and how has he coped along the winding road that now has him rejuvenated at Newcastle? “I have had certain things in my life which are probably for another time but I see a life coach, Tim Martin, he was based in Harley Street and I have seen him for five years because I felt I needed something else in my life to kind of give me an unbiased opinion, unbiased advice and just give me that support that was required. 

Restart Rugby

Some of the revealing statistics in the RPA’s Restart campaign

“Because it’s not always just related to rugby, it’s the general world at the moment so Restart is a fantastic charity and foundation for players to openly be able to speak out and know that they are not on their own. It’s important and more so now than ever that players are actually taking that opportunity to reach out and speak to people about certain issues in their life they might be struggling with.”

We can’t finish without asking the England question – can the form of Burrell at Newcastle be a springboard back into the national set-up? It was Stuart Lancaster who gave Burrell his Test debut in the 2014 Six Nations away to France. He featured in 13 of the 19 English games at the time only to find himself shafted when it came to squad selection for the 2015 World Cup, an adventure Lancaster made a hash of as his team failed to emerge from its pool

Burrell went on to outlive the Lancaster reign, playing twice under Eddie Jones and touring Australia, and while there has been no inclusion since, the dream of representing his country hadn’t been extinguished. “Who knows? I never want to say never and stranger things have happened. I would love to play for England.

“It all comes down to if Eddie sees me fitting into that team and where he would see me fitting in, what role he would want me to play there. Would I back myself? Absolutely. I back myself every single weekend when I step on the field with Newcastle and I have played against these guys that have been representing England for the past couple of seasons, so I’ll always want to try and put my hand up.

“It’s always in my heart. Every time I leave the house I have got my cap there so when I walk out the door every morning to train it is there, you never, ever forget and it has always been a huge passion of mine. I’m very patriotic and there is nothing more than I would want to do than to play for England.”

  • To learn more about Restart and the work of the RPA, click here

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'I felt sad that he couldn't speak to me because I had known him for a very long time'

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