In the final few weeks before Rugby World Cup 2015, we are already walking across battlefields. International squads are being trimmed; 45 becomes 38, and will eventually become 31. Discarded bodies lie strewn about our path, they tried to make the cut and failed. We’ve all been there, “No, we don’t want you…” Rejection, sport’s bastard cousin, smiles and points at your isolation. To have a team, you must tell people they can’t be included. To create unity, you must divide.
Of course, those left unpicked will only be referenced should the chosen fail. Nobody will care if the selected are victorious. But should things not work out, ‘if onlys’ will come raining down. Ahead of a major tournament, we stand on the precipice of the unknown. We have contention about certain players because they are yet to fail, yet to succeed. The arguments ensue because it is yet to be proven.
In England’s ranks, no one divides opinion more than Sam Burgess. A player fast-tracked into the Union game from Rugby League; a man of brilliance, just not quite at this sport. A man adapting very quickly, but is it quickly enough? A man attempting to take up position, with people seemingly undecided as to the position that should be.
To someone joining the debate on Burgess and England, there are some curious aspects about him and his club side Bath; let me recount them to you. Last season, Bath were very good: offensively irresistible, they could put a lot of points on teams. Their backline secured nine try bonus points (joint top in the league with Wasps) and 10 to 15 were all English (George Ford, Kyle Eastmond, Jonathan Joseph, Semesa Rokodunguni, Matt Banahan and Anthony Watson have all worn the red rose).
They were also very good defensively: only Northampton conceded fewer points over the campaign. This is relatively unsurprising because Bath’s Director of Rugby is Mike Ford, a man who was previously defensive coach for Ireland, the British & Irish Lions and England (he took them to the World Cup final in 2007). Ford masterminded a fine season for Bath, he took them to the Premiership final and was voted the Aviva Premiership Director of Rugby at the annual awards ceremony.
In his Bath team, Burgess played at flanker. They tried him at centre but Ford Senior didn’t think him good enough, he preferred Eastmond and Joseph in tandem and the former NRL man at 6. Burgess began to play well there, he kept good players like Carl Fearns and Matt Garvey on the bench. Odd then, that Stuart Lancaster should jettison the man in the middle of Bath’s back line, Kyle Eastmond (dropped from the England squad last Friday), and line up a man from the same team playing in a different position, Sam Burgess.
What was wrong with what Bath were doing? Cohesiveness between 10, 12 and 13 in an England shirt would be beneficial surely, and relatively straight forward given the fact they (Ford, Eastmond and Joseph) all play in those positions for Bath? Yet Eastmond has been dismissed without trial, Burgess included for an international debut in a position in which he’s not proficient. It is a very big gamble, and one at odds with Lancaster’s tendency for the uncomplicated.
The inside line suggests that Brad Barritt, Saracens’ inside centre will probably start alongside Ford and Joseph in an England first choice XV. And it is in Barritt’s mould (big, straight running, defensively sound) that ‘Slammin’ Sam’ is currently being seen. Burgess is a direct replacement then, that offers a very similar option? That is uncomplicated. And rather unadventurous. Mike Ford this week has said that in attack, Eastmond can do things no other England player can. He is very surprised to see Eastmond back in the Bath camp. So am I. Eastmond is one of the best lock pickers around. Why keep trying to smash down the door?
In press conference this week ahead of the France game, Lancaster conceded that he likes the way Bath play. ‘Using power runners’ to create space outside. For me, Eastmond is a key part of that creative process, and yet he’s been left out the mix. Those sums don’t add up.
Add to this the potential of Luther Burrell. Northampton Saints’ inside centre has seemingly slipped down the pecking order since a fruitful partnership with Joseph in the Spring. Why is this Burgess experiment being worked on, when there are seemingly more sensible and risk free options, especially ahead of such an important tournament? Logic too, it seems, has been left out of the reckoning.
Only time will tell if this trial will work. If it does, it will be hailed as a master stroke from a rugby genius. And if it doesn’t, you have to suppose that rejection’s probing finger will turn towards Lancaster.
Sam Roberts © 2015. (Text only). All Rights Reserved.