Burgess over Burrell
Holy Moly. The Rugby League legend has done it. A straw poll at Trojans Rugby club on Monday afternoon had 90% of an under-14 squad of forty lads go with Sam Burgess and his aura have won the day. In the end, his presence has been the deciding factor.
Luther Burrell has played 13 times for England, lost the Six Nations on points difference twice and scored three tries. England scored more tries this Six Nations than they have since 2003. Burrell helped – a lot. But he has never managed to remove a sense of inconsistency and that has probably been his downfall: he could not back up, game after game. And then, when he was questioned about the width he is able to put on a game, he found himself throwing intercept passes. He chased a style of game that was not suited to him, and it cost him. When he went back to the gain line stuff, he did it well in the Six Nations. But there are shortcomings in his game. Burrell does not offer a kicking game and, other than his offloading, doesn’t offer razor sharp wide passes. So he was always vulnerable.
Burgess, on the other hand, has been bouncing around. He’s tried the midfield for Bath; didn’t work out. Switched to back row, found his feet, and then only two months ago was thrown back into the midfield. This is serious emotional investment from the lads at the top of the England tree.
Why? Because he is a winner, he is a giant of a man, not just physically but mentally. Lads want to be him and this is the England players, not just fans. They want to be his mate. He lifts them by his presence. Jason Robinson arrived in 2001 and he didn’t have to touch a ball. We wanted to feed off him, to talk to him, learn from his experiences. We wanted to watch him run, never mind pass him the ball. The Instagram and Twitter feeds of the current England side are littered with selfies with Sam. His presence has an effect, and yet it cannot and should not be enough.
World Cup squads do not win carrying cheerleaders. So Burgess was given a simple situation; hit the ground running against France, contribute on the field and be more than just be a decoy runner, because opposition sides soon cotton on. So Burgess launched into the French talisman Dimitri Szarzewski and the kids around the country went crazy. Smash after smash. Then the carry up the middle. The juggle, but the secure placement and then the second Watson try where the lynchpin of the move was Burgess. Billy Twelvetrees was sunk in an instant and Burrell has followed with Slade’s brilliance in the 13 channel.
Late Saturday night when asked who were my four centres, I picked Barritt, Joseph, Slade and Burrell. My view was that if a couple of injuries come in, if there are problems, would you want Burgess and Slade lining up against Australia? Could you be 100% certain in the view that he can cope in a new pairing and under the most intense of pressure. My caution sided with my longer-term knowledge of an England midfield with Burrell playing in it. Having said that, it does not surprise me that Burgess has made it. Not in the slightest. Nothing this lad does surprises me.
Many say the pace of the Kiwi backline, the cunning of the Australians, and the sheer rugby brilliance of Jamie Roberts will be too much. But there is a very strong reality that he will not play if Barritt and Joseph stay fit in the midfield combination. Which is where the Burgess aura comes in. His attitude in camp, his presence, his voice, will add to England’s belief. His training mentality and his ability to never, ever to doubt himself or those around him is a vital ingredient in a World Cup squad. The very solid crash test course against France was enough to ensure that the England management do not fear a situation when Burgess gets asked to step up to the plate. It has been an extraordinary journey for an extraordinary individual.
For Burrell it is the other side of the coin. A player that has never let England down, and yet has missed out. Time will of course be the judge of the call Lancaster has made, but it is one that I am excited to see play out.