London: Any doubts Sam Burgess had about the scale of the task confronting him in his bid to make it into hosts England’s 2015 World Cup were quickly put to rest.
The rugby league international will return home to join Premiership side Bath on a three-year contract from Australian league outfit South Sydney Rabbitohs in October.
“With 2015 being a Rugby World Cup, it was an opportunity I had to pursue,” said Burgess after the switch was announced on Monday.
But whereas in union’s early days as a professional sport, England officials seemed almost desperate for league converts — and even financed their moves in some cases — Burgess’ ambitious aim was soon placed in perspective.
“Sam is going to have to earn the right like anyone else — I’ve never said he’s going to be fast-tracked into the World Cup squad,” England rugby union coach Stuart Lancaster insisted on Monday.
“It’s going to be extremely difficult for a player to come from rugby league in October and then play in the 2015 Six Nations.”
Lancaster’s comments were echoed by Bath coach Mike Ford, a former rugby league player.
“He [Burgess] is a good footballer and is intelligent. I wouldn’t be surprised if he did [played for England at the 2015 World Cup], but it’s a tough ask.”
Those remarks will go some way to reassuring all those who’ve argued that ‘parachuting’ Burgess into the England set-up would go against everything Lancaster has said about the need for development and team building, as well as being embarrassing for a country with an already large player pool.
Jason Robinson, England’s 2003 World Cup-winner, has so far been the exception that proves the rule when it comes to league to union moves by English players.
Robinson was a wing and, generally speaking, back three players face the least dramatic transition given the broadly similar demands of both games.
The same cannot be said for midfield, where Robinson’s fellow code breakers Andy Farrell and Henry Paul both struggled to come to terms with union’s greater complexity for all their success in the league.
Indeed the way in which Paul was replaced just 24 minutes into his final England Test against Australia in 2004 is an almost textbook example of what can go wrong.
Burgess, a powerful figure at 6ft 5in (1m 96cms) and 114-kilogram forward with strong handling skills has often been compared to New Zealand’s Sonny Bill Williams, who helped the All Blacks win the 2011 World Cup in union before returning to league to represent the Kiwis in 2013.
Lancaster sees similarities between the two players in that Williams, a forward in league, played as a back in union and so was spared learning the intricacies of scrum and line-out play, the latter non-existent in the 13-man game.
“The closest comparison I can make is Sonny Bill Williams, who was a forward in rugby league but played in the backs in union,” Lancaster said.
“When Sam was playing league for England at last year’s World Cup, you could see him defending in the back line from set-piece.”
Significantly, news of the 25-year-old Burgess’s change of sports was greeted with no fanfare by England’s governing Rugby Football Union and it is understood Twickenham chiefs, concerned not to favour one Premiership club at the expense of the others, have not paid any part of either his transfer deal.
Should Burgess try to forge a Bath career as a centre, in order to realise he would both have to force his way past Lancaster’s current midfield combination of Billy Twelvetrees and Luther Burrell, as well as supplant Manu Tuilagi and Brad Barritt, both of whom would have been first choices this Six Nations but for injuries.
But Lancaster left the door open for Burgess by saying: “The bigger the challenge for Sam, the more he rises to it.
“He raises his game. I like that trait in people.”