Few who have followed the illustrious rugby league career of Sam Burgess will argue that the man lacks talent. Once dubbed “Great Britain’s Sonny Bill” by another union-convert Shontayne Hape, Burgess has yet to cement his official position in union in spite of the fast-approaching Rugby World Cup.
Where does his coach at Bath, Mike Ford, see him playing? “He’s only going to play at six” was his categorical answer in a recent interview. Certainly, Burgess’ performances have been better in the flanker position, although he was never really given an opportunity to succeed at inside centre, receiving only a handful of games at the beginning of his union career. Those games at inside centre also coincided with an injury to Kyle Eastmond and the absence of Jonathan Joseph on international duty. Does Ford see ‘Slammin’ Sam’ as a flanker as a way of solving a potentially over-crowded midfield? Possibly. All three of the aforementioned players want, and deserve, to start every game. Not to mention the continued rise of centre Ollie Devoto, an extremely exciting young prospect. Whilst there may not be sufficient space for Burgess in the centres, there is certainly opportunity for the former Sydney Rabbitohs man at blindside flanker. His physicality will no doubt suit such a brutal position and alongside Francois Louw, plus potentially Toby Faletau, Bath could have a dominant back row trio on their hands.
Stuart Lancaster, the England head coach, has gone contrary to Ford’s wishes for Burgess. During the recent training camp in Denver, Lancaster spoke of his power, strength, agility and defence. He also expressed the England management’s desires to insert Burgess as a centre. Clearly, Lancaster likes the thought of Burgess’ powerful offloading game; in all likelihood off the bench should he be selected. Selection is a different issue altogether. The absence of Manu Tuilagi has solved England’s outside centre dilemma with Jonathan Joseph almost a shoe-in. However, England has a glut of inside centres with the likes of Brad Barritt, Luther Burrell, Kyle Eastmond, Billy Twelvetrees and even Henry Slade. Adding Burgess to that long list may seem like a questionable decision, especially considering only two, maybe three, of the aforementioned will be selected. However, none of them have been able to nail down a consistent starting berth over the past few years. Burgess, albeit lacking experience and game management in union, would provide a different dimension to England’s game that the England management are clearly excited by.
So where will Burgess end up? Simply put, a player of his talent, his offloading game and physicality is best suited for the centres. That is not to say he is not a fit for the flank, he could certainly perform to an elite level there. However, the Sonny Bill Williams comparisons are not without merit, his offloading game is so advanced that it is only a matter of time before we see him trucking the ball up to the defensive line, drawing numerous defenders, only to release the most exquisite of offloads to his outside backs. Such a vision may well take a bit more time to come to fruition; he has only been in the sport a matter of months after all, although it cannot be far away. Whether he is selected for the upcoming World Cup is another issue altogether, early signs from Lancaster in Denver suggest that he will be included but until the squad is announced, we can only speculate. A player of Burgess’ supreme talent deserves the grandest stage in the sport, the World Cup, and whilst a final decision on his permanent position will be put on hold, a player of his natural rugby instinct must be better suited to the centres.