I don’t like to go on about things. In fact, I try and keep this website full of articles of different aspects of rugby and sport. I try not to let it get dominated by certain teams or players. But this last week has been a little different and I feel my last article needs a follow up, an addendum. I like to think I’m always learning and this week I’ve learned a lot.
You will have picked up the agitation in my previous missive. It attempted to articulate my confusion over the inclusion of Sam Burgess into England’s rugby squad. I asked a lot of questions, provided few answers, and as I continued to read the fallout from Monday’s decision to start Burgess in the centre against France this weekend, I continued to cogitate. Things just weren’t right. It didn’t make sense.
And one of the main reasons for that was Stuart Lancaster himself. Over the last few years I’ve spent a lot of time listening to him and looking at what he does. And I’ve learnt that, above all, he is a pragmatist: Stuart Lancaster does things for a reason. There is method in each one of his decisions; every step is thought out and considered.
Lancaster’s inclusion of the former rugby league star had befuddled greater minds than mine. Brilliant rugby journalists have been trying to come to terms with it. Why put Burgess, who hasn’t even proven himself as a international blindside let alone centre, in a team three games away from a Rugby World Cup? If we’re honest he’s barely proven himself as a Premiership player. The debate rallied back and forth.
And then I got a phonecall. A friend of mine (someone with greater insight than I and someone who is high enough up the rugby food chain for me not to mention his name here) wanted to speak to me. He’d read my piece. He had some questions of his own. And as he started to ask them, my head began to nod. I’d claimed in my last piece that I felt rugby logic had been lost on this matter. Of course, as my friend continued to talk, I was to discover that my problem had been my looking for rugby logic.
He conceded I was right. Burgess isn’t yet an international quality centre. ‘But what is he? What do you know about him?’ he asked, letting the phone line’s silence hang between us. I knew the evidence on Burgess was irrefutable. A peerless physical specimen schooled in NRL grand finals; an athlete of power, presence and accomplishment. A winner. The type of man Australians fear.
‘He’s also learning the game,’ he continued. ‘I think that his mindset is what most interests Lancaster.’ My friend spoke about the England squad and balance. How personalities are important to Lancaster. How a World Cup squad needs everyone to play their part. Out of the group games how many will the second string start? Lancaster knows his starting back line – maybe we all do – you need people happy to sit behind that, to be the bench. If you get people too keen to play it can upset dynamics. Yes of course you want competition but it can be divisive in a team room.
I’d started to agree. I thought of Lancaster and all the ideologies he holds. How his reign has been littered with decisions that served the greater good. How he always talks about team and unity, and how whenever I see Lancaster in press conference it looks as though he doesn’t appreciate the attention. This has never been about one with Lancaster, it’s always the all.
Burgess provides the perfect jigsaw piece. He is a good enough sportsman to warrant respect from everyone around him. His efforts in Australian Rugby League have made him a hero. Burgess will have spoken in camp, and when he did, everyone will have listened. Lancaster will have seen that and it will have been noted. Voices like Burgess’ are integral to a World Cup campaign.
Also, the younger players in the squad will gain from having him around. I think of George Ford for one. Reared on Rugby League VHS as a child, Burgess’ presence alongside him in training will be invaluable. Perhaps there are concerns about whether young Ford has the temperament for this coming competition. Having Burgess in the squad won’t be a bad thing for someone like George. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that they are spending a good amount of time with each other.
Include in this as well the idea that Burgess himself will want to play this role. This is a win-win. His education in this sport will be optimised in such surroundings, and that is what he is all about at the moment. He always talks about how much he has to master. He’ll do his job when called upon but crucially, he won’t be banging on doors begging for a starting berth. He’ll sit behind Barritt and be happy; content to just soak it all up and learn.
And as an added bonus, Burgess will take the spotlight off players. These warm up games are vital examinations for a host of players. How do you get the best out of them? Well, taking a little bit of the pressure off could work. I have a sneaking suspicion we could see a really good performance from Henry Slade this weekend, on his international debut. But lots of people are talking about the man inside him. It’s clever isn’t it? But most importantly, it all starts to make sense.
This Burgess decision was never about rugby logic. Lancaster was thinking wider than that. We’ve been told time and again, winning a World Cup is not just about rugby. Which reminds me of Paul Grayson, a player who picked up a World Cup winners’ medal in 2003. Unkind people snarked that it was just for retrieving Jonny’s drop goals in practice. And you know what, maybe it was. Because sometimes in life, you have a job to do.
Sam Roberts © 2015. (Text only). All Rights Reserved.