Sam Burgess has chased the union gold. Sam Burgess has sold his soul. Sam Burgess will be bored playing union. Sam Burgess should be grateful for what the game has done for him. Sam Burgess will dominate union. Sam Burgess should be [insert your own complaint about his move].
We’ve all had a say about how well Sam will do when he crosses sides, all had a whinge about why he’s gone and all complained about how unfair it is. Well, it’s time to dry your eyes about how unfair it all is (did any league fans cry when we signed Jonathan Davies, Scott Quinnell, Alan Tait, Martin Offiah… you get the picture) get some informed opinion about the code switch.
Jamie Noon is a man who knows what it takes to make it at the top level of rugby union. With 38 England caps, over 250 games for Newcastle Falcons and stint in France with Brive, Noon has a CV that demands respect. He was also chased by a few Super League clubs about his own cross code move before heading to France, so he knows his subject.
One of the common themes running through the social media posts about Burgess is how bored he will be in union.
“It’s all kicking”
“They don’t make any tackles”
“He’ll never get the ball”
On the face of it, there is some weight in this theory. Take the RLWC semi final as a snap shot. Burgess made 19 carries for 187 metres, busting through 4 tackles. He also made an eye-watering 41 tackles. Compare that to the Six Nations, where after three games, the top tackler in the entire tournament, Chris Robshaw, has just 43 tackles. Surely Sam’s going to need a magazine and a nail file, right?
“It’s a different game”, Noon laughs. “Assuming he’ll play in the centre he’s obviously going to adapt, especially defensively where he may not be making the number of tackles but will be aware of a lot more going on in front of him. He could be at outside centre with blindside wingers or full backs running into much bigger channels, trying to isolate him for pace, or inside centre where teams will look to drag him out of the line, especially in his early days”
It’s an interesting point. From the moment Sam destroyed Fui Fui Moi Moi as an 18 year old teams have spent 80 minutes trying to avoid running into his channel. Once he steps into the 15 man game, he’s going to become the target for teams, at least in the short term. Then there’s the pressure.
“Yeah. He’s coming with a huge reputation, big fee and salary, everyone is talking about him already and he will be the main focus. OK, he’s got that now, but he knows his game, this will be a new challenge” Noon ads. And there’s more bad news… “union is tough because of the ruck, because of the breakdown, because of the rules – have you seen how many rules there are? – he’ll have to get up to speed while under enormous pressure and without a great deal of time if he’s to be selected for the world cup.”
Ah, the world cup. The big show in 2015 that, it seems, everyone wants Sam to be ready to pull on the white England shirt. While we’re covering the bad news, Noon’s not entirely convinced the Dewsbury lad will be ready.
“It depends on how long it takes to adapt, where Bath will play him, where England want to play him. Andy Farrell started at 6 [blindside flanker] and took his time to find his feet, eventually settling at 12, but that took time. Even Sonny Bill, he played a few years at Toulon before going back to New Zealand to become an All Black. Even after a few seasons, Sonny Bill’s team mates hadn’t got used to his off loading game and when I played against him his off loads went to ground a lot. A few months, isn’t a long time.”
As a northerner, he’ll say “B-ath” and not “Barr-th”, which shouldn’t be too much of a problem these days with a northern coach at Bath and England, however Burgess will have to make a good impression with his new team mates. He’s already convinced a pretty sceptical bunch of Aussies that a Pom can be the best around, so this shouldn’t be too much of a problem, providing his performances stack up.
“He’s coming into teams that are doing well. For England, Burrell and Twelvetrees are performing well, Manu Tuilagi is coming back, Joel Tomkins and Kyle Eastmond are on the fringes. If Burgess is selected on anything other than merit, then it can cause problems. It can be tough because the guys [in the team] can be thinking what have I done wrong? But they will also be naturally competitive and look to show why they should be picked.” With only three centres and fourth who can play on the wing going to the world cup, everyone will be under pressure to perform.
It’s tempting to think that England don’t even need a Sam Burgess, after all, they’ve got a Manu Tuilagi rampaging through defences and Joel Tomkins floating around the squad. But Noon is having none of that, “there’s always a chance injuries can happen” and could even see a possibility of playing both big units together for England in the centres, even though they might be a little one dimensional.
“With Manu and Sam together, I’m not sure they would complement each other, but knowing they’re going to flying at you and off load everywhere is one thing, having to stop it for 80 minutes is another”. Never a truer word spoken! So what’s the idea centre partnership for England? “I like a ball player at 12 to give another kicking option, with someone on the outside to give go forward. Forwards like someone who can break the advantage line and Sam can give you that. The forwards would be laughing.”
Centre of Attention
Noon spent pretty much his entire career in the centre, attacking like a wrecking ball with a big defensive game, so he knows a thing or two about the position. Received wisdom is that Burgess will play in the centre, but does he think that’s where Bath and England will get the best out of him.
“Sam is a phenomenal athlete and he’s good enough to play in the back row or centre. At 116 kilos he’ll be a handful, is a physical presence in defence and will cause problems. But to get the best out of him, they will need to a find a way to play to his strengths by getting the ball in his hands. That’s what Jason Robinson did when he moved to union, he worked out his strengths, worked hard at adding skills like a kicking game and then did what he was good at over and over again.
“At 13 [outside centre] he will have fewer opportunities to involved. Even at 12 the defensive game is different to league, which might force him to adapt his game. If he plays in the back row he can destroy people as they come *round the corner* and carry the ball more, but then he’ll also have to pick up more of the technical game too. It’s a tough one, but I think RFU will see him more as a centre, which could be the deciding factor.”
Sonny Bill v Slammin Sam
It’s a bad media habit to reduce a team game to a contest between two individuals, but Sonny Bill v Sam just won’t go away. Right from the moment Sam trampled all over SBW at the beginning of 2013 the media has built the rivalry. The RLWC semi final contest between the two was epic. Now they could face off in union too, but, Noon thinks, with a few less fireworks.
“The big collisions, like that NRL one, tend not to happen out wide in union. If they’re facing each other in the centres, then they will be looking for space not each other. And even if he played number 8 and had a huge run up, in union Sam would be looking to secure the ball rather than run over someone”. That’s the most disappointing news you’ll hear all week!
The big question
Two ex England internationals have differing views on how well Burgess will do in union. Jeremy Guscott, not renowned for his love of rugby league, thinks Burgess will be a star. Matt Dawson is less convinced. So Noon now has the casting vote!
“If he plays to his strengths, he will be a bit like Sonny Bill. He is phenomenal in defence, has an amazing off load game and brings a level of physicality. It might take time to settle, but he’s a fraky athlete and can be an x factor player for England.”
So there you go, proof, if you needed it, that Sam will be a star. Again.
Quick Fire Questions With Jamie Noon
Who will win the Six Nations?
Ireland. No, England. If they beat Wales, they’ve played all the big boys. I’ll go with England.
Toughest centre you played against?
Ma’a Nonu, Sonny Bill Williams, Brian O’Driscoll and Tana Umaga
Ma’a was quick, strong, powerful, difficicult to tackle because he was so compact. Sonny Bill off loaded from everywhere. O’Driscoll was the complete rugby player; low centre of gravity, stays on his feet well, works incredibly hard and was just brilliant. Tana had skill, pace and power and was a threat the whole time.
Best league convert you’ve ever seen?
For England, it was Jason Robinson. He was the best ever. He was quick, but his acceleration was second to none. I played with and against Jason and he was a nightmare to play against.
Overseas, possibly Israel Folau. He’s awesome. He’s played league, Aussie rules and union and excelled. Watching some of the things he does…
Any other league players you could see switching?
Kevin Sinfield. When I was with the England squad we spent some time training with Leeds Rhinos and Kevin Sinfield was great. He’s such top athlete, nice guy who is down to earth and intelligent.
Any rugby league pedigree? Six tries for Northumbira Univeristy in a North East Cup match against Whitely Bay. First and last outing in league!
Did you ever fancy switching sides?
I had a few offers from Super League before I moved to France, but the deal never came off. League has always been something I’ve enjoyed. My main attribute in union was physicality, both with and without the ball, and, well, that’s league for you. It’s been said a few times that I played a very league-style game and it’s probably true.