Will Carling says he feels “sorry” for you. Several experts think you should be nowhere near England’s World Cup squad. There is a minute left on the clock in your second international appearance. How to leave your mark? How about this. Flatten Ireland’s Ian Madigan with the force of a brewery truck delivering ale to Twickenham’s thirsty masses.
This is how the final pre-World Cup prep game ended for Sam Burgess, the 6ft 5 inch, 17st 11lb convert from rugby league who is still so new to the 15-man code that you half expect him to jog off the bench with the laws of the game in his palm for quick reference. Madigan, himself a replacement for Ireland, was hit, and stayed hit, as Burgess smashed the ball from his hands and sparked an England counter-attack moments before their 21-13 victory was confirmed.
No England player is under such scrutiny (and Burgess is not even a starter). The others must be quietly relieved that so many eyes are drawn to the giant who wore the No 23 shirt in only his 21st game of rugby union. Everything Burgess does falls under the microscope of those wondering whether he can play a useful part in England’s World Cup campaign or is simply an apprentice along for the ride at Luther Burrell’s expense.
The answer is actually quite simple. Burgess will have a positive effect as an impact player but will also appear at times like someone who has wandered on to the wrong pitch for the wrong sport. He will knock the ball on, take up the wrong defensive position and sometimes get in the way as he endeavours to understand the movements of those around him. He will make the pundits cringe and he will probably light up the stadium as he did with a perfectly timed hit on Madigan.
The bit about his “aura” in the dressing room sounds overdone. This is an England team in no need of an external character transplant because Stuart Lancaster has already stoked the fighting spirit of these players, who were far more tenacious than Ireland in the early phases of this rehearsal in front of 80,138. Some on the emerald side will be concerned by their team’s lack of intensity. But you could equally view it as a sign of maturity that the back-to-back Six Nations champions calibrated their effort to take account of the long-run up to their group games against Italy and France. When they needed to up the ante when England led 15-3 Ireland were able to.
England, too, were patchy, but exuberant in the first half-hour and disciplined towards the end when they needed to smother an Irish counter-surge. Warren Gatland, the agreeably mischievous Wales coach, was not the only one warning Stuart Lancaster’s men not to enter a World Cup on the back of two consecutive defeats. The whole England camp – not to mention the Twickenham top-brass – were dreading a fortnight of negativity and doubt.
These are the edgy pre-tournament days when the news void is filed with endless theorising and speculation. Of the back of defeats to France and Ireland much of that would have turned pessimistic. And Burgess doubtless knew he would have ended up as the lightning rod for all discussions about Lancaster’s squad selection. This is not the first time the England coach has discarded Burrell. He did so at Leeds when Burrell was 15 but the youngster fought his way back in from the shadows. This time, it was more brutal and momentous and Burgess is the beneficiary.
Brad Barritt and Jonathan Joseph are the first-choice starters in midfield but Burgess is bound to feature. The trick will be knowing when and how to use him. He may be more use in the protection of a lead than the closing of a deficit because he still looks uncomfortable in the contact/offload area. His first act here was to spill a sharp pass from Richard Wigglesworth as he fixed his thoughts on the correct angle of attack. Plainly anyone who is constantly having to compute the right thing to do is not going to perform with the silkiness of a Jeremy Guscott.
But this was a pressure-relieving victory, earned by a highly committed squad, and now the build-up to the Fiji game will be all about possibilities rather than panic. Host nation status brings its own array of pressures, especially when you happen to be the world’s richest rugby nation with the London 2012 Olympics as the benchmark for staging international events.
Rob Andrew, the former England fly-half and now the RFU’s Professional Rugby Director, thinks these England players will need to work those expectations to their advantage.
“It could consume you, if you’re not careful,” Andrew says. With the modern way of the world it’s quite difficult to block out what everyone else is thinking or doing because you can’t escape it. We’re all building this up to be the greatest rugby event of all time because we want it to be. They’ve got to go into a space that is completely de-hyped because that’s how they need to focus on doing their jobs. Everybody else can be hyped in the stadium on the television, in the bars.
“You can use the passion of the home support. That’s different to getting caught up in it. It’s actually quite debilitating. It actually takes energy away from you rather than giving you energy. You’ve got to use it to give you energy.”
Burgess, a true aristocrat of league, will not find any of this difficult. There is nothing in his demeanour to suggest susceptibility to pressure. It must say something, too, that Carling later rang him to “explain” his comments about him (Burgess) not being ready for a World cup, a view shared by the great Brian O’Driscoll. The call suggests Carling is sceptical but also a little star-struck.
As Frank Sinatra sang: “Tally-ho. Here we go.” And Sam Burgess is learning on the hoof.