LONDON (Reuters) - Some of the most respected voices in rugby are split on whether Sam Burgess is far too inexperienced to be thrown into the World Cup or whether the “aura” of the giant rugby league convert could bring something extra to the England squad.
Burgess switched from rugby league at the start of the year and spent six pretty inauspicious months at Bath bouncing between centre and flanker without looking anything close to the finished article in either position.
He has only 70 minutes of senior international action under his belt from last month’s Twickenham warm-up win over France, where he was also sin-binned for a silly infringement but also caught the eye with some thunderous hits and strong, straight running that could give England’s attack a new dimension.
Former international centres Will Carling of England and Ireland’s Brian O‘Driscoll both said that, though they respected Burgess as a formidable performer in rugby league, it would not be fair on him or his team to throw him into the white heat of World Cup battle with so little union game time under his belt.
The England management said they had seen much more behind closed doors, but former England flyhalf and TV pundit Stuart Barnes remains doubtful. “If he has improved enough to hold his own at the World Cup, it is near enough (to a miracle) to leave a man open-jawed,” Barnes said.
England’s former World Cup-winning centre Will Greenwood also accepted that it was something of a gamble. But with Jonathan Joseph and Brad Barritt pencilled in as the first-choice centre partnership, Greenwood felt that it was one well worth taking.
“They’ve gone for the sheer presence and aura of Burgess; the winning mentality he brings to a squad,” Greenwood said of a man who led South Sydney to success in Australia’s rugby league grand final last year despite fracturing an eye socket in the first tackle of the match. “It’s a gamble, but he gives a lift simply by being in camp.”
Former British and Irish Lions coach Ian McGeechan went even further, suggesting that Burgess should be thrown straight into England’s starting team for the opening World Cup clash with Fiji on Sept. 18.
“You must never underestimate a player who can alter and improve the chemistry of a squad, and I genuinely think Burgess can do that,” McGeechan said.
Burgess, seemingly totally ego-free and well aware that he still has much to learn, certainly impressed England coach Stuart Lancaster and his assistant Andy Farrell, who trod a similarly quick transition from league to a union World Cup in 2007.
Lancaster said that Burgess had “trained the house down” to win over the coaches, while Farrell said: “He should be unbelievably proud of himself for forcing us to pick him.”
Editing by David Goodman