For the majority of the 20th Century rugby union was an amateur game. In England in particular this was strictly adhered to; any sign of a player being paid would mean a life ban from the game. In other parts of the world this was not true. The rumours of brown paper bags for players was not unusual, and probably true in France but particularly in Wales. To earn an honest living for playing rugby most players went to play rugby league.
It was a well-trodden route and understandable, either work in a menial job in a town where you are hero or make more money than you could imagine in the north of England. Most pragmatic people will choose money. Up until rugby union went professional in the mid-Nineties the general pattern was that a young player would show promise achieve some greatness in the union game then move to league. When union went professional, this went into reverse. The high point being arguably Jason Robinson, a true league great who became a union hero and World Cup winner.
Sam Burgess is now attempting to make the move to rugby union. Why? Not for money, he was incredibly successful in Australia as a league star. So not for fame, but for international glory. Rugby league has a vibrant and well supported club game in Australia and England but it does not have an international presence despite years of trying there are only three sides: Australia, New Zealand and England. To really gain superstar status Sam Burgess knew he had to test himself in rugby union.
Sam Burgess brings many admirable traits to the game of rugby union that will be useful to Stuart Lancaster. The first thing he brings is that he is a large, solid individual - size is an important factor. Added to his size, he is an excellent ball handler, as all rugby league players tend to be. Like all rugby league players he knows how to cross the gain line and off load to other runners around him. The question then arises, where do you play him? Bath have made the decision to play him at blind side flanker. There is many that feel he should be playing in the centres. This would be a replication of the All Black Sonny Bill Williams. We then get into the technicalities of rugby union vs rugby league!
Rugby union and rugby league obviously share some fundamental skills, namely catching and passing. At these, Sam Burgess seems to be as good if not better than most. The way he led the Rabbitohs to the NRL Grand Final was spectacular. This is what has attracted rugby union to him.
The problem is that, to play in the centres, he has two slight issues. He has no discernible kicking game and, more problematically, can he play on the gain line? Meaning, can he take the ball close to the opposition? In rugby league you get at least ten yards to consider what you are going to do and depending on the tackle count your actions are normally premeditated. In rugby union speed of thought and decisive actions are key, and it is dependent on the game situation.
This links back to his kicking game. If you have to learn to kick, and this is not a natural part of your game, you are not sure when and where you should be doing it. A case in point is Jason Robinson - great player with one weakness, kicking.
If Sam Burgess was to play in the forwards, he will have more to learn. He has to understand the gain line, the ruck, the maul and the set piece. His ball-carrying opportunities will be limited. The most important point is that he no chance of making the England pack. Tom Wood, Chris Robshaw and now Ben Morgan have all had a fine autumn series and all deserve to hold the places they have in the side.
I hope Sam Burgess makes it as a centre. England need his direction. They need his leadership and they need his strength. They also need him to learn the game quickly. The evidence shows he can: he went to Australia and was a success. Very few English rugby league players have done this. There is no reason he cannot do the same in rugby union.