'If England kept Sam Burgess, we could have won the World Cup in 2019'
Eddie Jones will surely look back on his seven-year England tenure and have a lot of ‘what ifs’, but the biggest of all is probably something he had no control over whatsoever.
While he might wish he picked a certain player in one match or played a different way in another, his biggest ‘what if’ could well be something that happened before he had even taken the reins at Twickenham.
Jones came in to save England following a disastrous World Cup campaign at the end of 2015, with his arrival coming just days after Sam Burgess’ departure back to the NRL. As a longtime admirer of rugby league, the Australian must ask himself what would have happened had he got a chance to work alongside the now-retired league superstar.
Jones has a healthy track record of working with league converts and getting the best out of them. His entire back three in the 2003 World Cup final had come from the NRL, and he was keen to fasttrack converts into his England team. Working with arguably the best rugby league player on the planet at the time would have been nothing short of a dream come true for Jones. But by the time he was signed, Burgess had already gone.
Joining Burgess’ former England rugby league teammate James Graham on The Bye Round Podcast recently, Jones looked over the “ridiculous” handling of the 2014 NRL winner by rugby union, before going on to explain what impact he would have made in his side, comparing him to England’s greatest ever import from league.
“You just look at him, he’s a winner, isn’t he?” the 63-year-old said.
“Everywhere he goes he makes the team win. Tough, skilful. But they stuffed him up in rugby. They had him playing two positions. No one in rugby plays forward and back, because it’s too hard. So he was playing No6 for his club and No12 for England, it was just ridiculous to ask someone changing sports to play two positions. No one in rugby plays two positions. So they made it really difficult for him.
“If England had kept Sam Burgess, who knows, we could have won the World Cup in 2019, who knows? He’s a substantial player, a substantial player. You just watch what he does. If he had one position in rugby and he was playing that for his club and playing that for the nation, you don’t know what difference he could make.
“I’m not saying we would have won the World Cup with him, but I’m saying potentially he could have been a point of difference. Like Jason Robinson in 2003 with England. Before they had Jason Robinson, they were a fairly solid team. But Jason Robinson gave them this X-factor that you couldn’t coach against because you didn’t know when he was coming in the back line- he didn’t know. They’re the players that you stay up at night and think ‘how are we going to close this bloke down?'”
Unfortunately for Jones, he explained how the horse had already bolted by the time he took on the job, and how there was no chance of a U-turn. “He’d already gone,” he said.
“And there was a bit of a sour relationship between him and rugby at that stage. I’ve caught up to him a few times since, but it was just too late.
“They hung him out to dry, and it would have been hard to get him back in any case.”
When asked where he would have played Burgess, Jones was swift to answer.
“No.12,” he said with no hesitation whatsoever. “No.12. It’s hard for a rugby league forward to play in the forwards in rugby. So if they’re a fast back row or a good back row, they can play No12 in rugby union.
“He would have been massive.”