BY S.J. ALEXANDER
In what is the biggest rugby league story of the off-season, Rabbitohs sensation Sam Burgess has signed with English rugby union club Bath. Burgess, one of the biggest names in rugby league at the moment, has made the big money switch (to a salary worth more than $900,000) in which he describes as “an opportunity I had to pursue”. With the 2015 World Cup approaching, Burgess is being foreseen as the answer to Englands’ fragile backline, to which he can add some serious firepower.
Bath and England Coach Stuart Lancaster has made no secret that he would like to use Burgess at inside centre, where like the ever-successful Sonny Bill Williams, his huge frame and quality ball skills have made him a very exciting prospect.
But it prompts the question, will Burgess be able to adapt to the nuances of rugby in time for the cut-throat nature of the global tournament? Queensland Reds coach and former assistant coach at Bath Richard Graham doesn’t think so. “I think the transition will be a tough one for him. I think probably the timing will be against him,” Graham said.
All the signs of a quality athlete with the potential to make the most of the switch are there, but the pressure is on Burgess to succeed in the World Cup when he will have only had one season in the game. By comparison, Sonny Bill Williams had two seasons in France, and one in the Super 15.
Whichever way you look at it, this is a very exciting time for English rugby fans, because as we have seen in the NRL Burgess is a serious talent who could be the X-Factor in Englands World Cup hopes.
The question of Burgess’ adaptability to rugby has led us to look at others who have made the switch, and which of them succeeded, and which failed. The athletes in our ‘Tops’ and ‘Flops’ include:
- Wendell Sailor: Sailor was one of the most dominant wingers in the NRL, having a large frame and speed to match. He played rugby league for his state and country before he made the switch to rugby in a big money deal with the Queensland Reds, soon finding himself playing for the Wallabies. Having enjoyed a successful but also controversial time in Australian rugby, he made the switch back to the NRL in 2008, where he finished his career with the Dragons and former mentor coach Wayne Bennet in 2009.
- Lote Tuqiri: Beginning his career in 1999, Tuqiri formed a deadly wing partnership with Wendell Sailor at the Broncos. Tuqiri enjoyed lots of success at the Broncos, winning a premiership, playing for his state, and also representing Australia and Fiji internationally. In 2003 he made the switch to rugby, and his speed combined with strength soon found him a place in Australia’s 2003 World Cup squad. Tuqiri was also selected in the 2007 World Cup squad after being a consistently stand-out performer for the Waratahs. After his contract was terminated in 2009, he has found himself back playing in the NRL, where he has had a tough time with injury but has now signed a one-year deal with the rampaging South Sydney Rabbitohs.
Other successful players include: Mat Rodgers, Brad Thorn and Sonny Bill Williams.
- Willie Mason: Mason, possibly the greatest forward in the NRL at his peak, was an amazing talent for the Bulldogs in 2004 where he won a premiership and the prestigious Clive Churchill Medal. Off-field dramas and big money deals saw him move clubs often, from the Roosters to the Cowboys and then overseas to the English Super League. In April 2011 he made his switch to rugby union where he was seen as the next Sonny Bill Williams, but after an unsuccessful stint for French club Toulon, fans described him as the biggest flop in the club’s history. Mason is now back in the NRL playing for the Newcastle Knights.