Sam Burgess took a leap by swapping rugby league superstardom for a shot in union, but a former team-mate has revealed it may not have been as big a risk as many might presume.
The former South Sydney Rabbitohs talisman was the subject of rumours in the build-up to the 2015 Rugby World Cup, where it was suggested he could be England ’s secret weapon.
Burgess made the move back to Blighty in the autumn of 2014, signing for Bath as the first step on his union expedition, which he hoped would end with a shot on the sport’s biggest stage.
However, Matt Banahan relayed a story to TheXV.com, alleging Burgess told some of his comrades at The Rec that he had been promised a place as England’s centre at the World Cup.
When asked about the code-switching experiment, Banahan replied: “That was all a bit odd. I have nothing against Sam. He was a bit of pawn in it all really.
“He told a few of the boys a representative of the RFU flew out to Sydney and told him, ‘If you come back to the UK you can play in a World Cup as a centre’. As far as he was concerned, the package was good and it was an intriguing offer.
“I suppose you play this sport for a short time and try to make as much money as you can, I get that. It got a bit ugly after the World Cup and he looked after himself. No one died, but the fallout was messy.”
Banahan ended his 12-year stay at Bath to join Premiership rivals Gloucester in 2018, having himself scored four tries in 16 appearances for England.
The Jersey native earned the last of those caps in 2011, and while he may not have been in contention for the 2015 World Cup squad, Burgess’ selection might have smarted all the same.
To see a player with only a few months of union experience picked for the grandest of competitions must have frustrated those who had dedicated entire careers to union, after all.
The project ended in disaster as Burgess played his part in England’s worst-ever World Cup performance on home soil and the country’s only pool-stage exit.
Speculation had long suggested Burgess was destined to play centre, but his preparation was complicated after then-Bath coach Mike Ford preferred him at blindside flanker.
He went on to play warm-up games against France and Ireland before taking to the World Cup, where he started in one of his three tournament appearances en route to falling at the first hurdle.
Many laid blame at the feet of Burgess and England coach Stuart Lancaster, who announced his resignation shortly after the team’s nightmare pool-stage depature.
To the league star’s credit, England led Wales 25-18 when Burgess was taken off in the one World Cup game he did start, but the Red Rose went on to lose 28-25 in the last 10 minutes.
Burgess—who ended his reported £500,000-a-year contract with Bath to rejoin the NRL in 2016—has since opened up about the tournament and his short-lived union experience.
Speaking in 2018, he defended his performances and those who selected him: “If people actually re-watched the games I participated in, you will see I added to the team. What cost us an early exit was individual egos and selfish players not following our leader, which essentially cost the coach and other great men their jobs.”
Eddie Jones has improved England’s fortunes on the whole, evidenced by the fact they finished runners-up to South Africa in the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
The incumbent coach recently identified Hull FC’s Jake Connor as another league talent who could make the switch to 15-a-side, although the player has since said he’s not interested.
Many will agree the Burgess debacle was mismanaged from start to finish, although these latest details shed an alarming light on the matter from an RFU perspective.
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