Jason Robinson backs Bath's Sam Burgess to follow his lead

By Dan RoanBBC sports editor
Robinson backs Burgess to shine

The challenge facing Sam Burgess is a daunting one.

As the 25-year-old rugby league star in the XV-man code with Bath, he doesn't just have to adapt to a different sport with its own distinct and complex set of rules, he also has to live up to one of the biggest reputations rugby has ever seen.

The pressure to meet expectations, to gain selection for England and then help them lift 2015's World Cup will be intense.

But if Burgess feels the need for encouragement as he crosses rugby's great divide, he need only look towards one man for inspiration.

Jason Robinson remains rugby's ultimate dual-coder. And 11 years after his spell-binding pace and trademark sidestep helped England lift the Webb Ellis trophy, he believes Burgess can follow in his footsteps.

"There's no doubt in my mind that he'll play a massive part for England," Robinson tells me as we meet over breakfast a few miles from Wigan, the town where he made his name in rugby league.

Jason Robinson celebrates a try in England's 2003 World Cup final win over Australia
Jason Robinson was a 2003 World Cup winner and blazed a trail Sam Burgess is now looking to follow

"People ask, 'is he capable of doing it in such a short space of time?'.

"They're looking at 11 months until the Rugby World Cup. Can he play for England?

"My journey proves that it can be done. I came over in November and, by February, I was playing for England. In June I was on the Lions tour! I have no doubt Sam Burgess will be playing for England, it's just a case of when. It's going to be exciting.

"We've got Manu Tuilagi, who's probably England's first choice in the centre. Luther Burrell is a strong player, great going forward, but I think Sam has got something in him that even those two players don't have."

Robinson is one of rugby's most iconic figures. After nine years in league at Wigan Warriors, he switched to union in 2000, going on to win 51 England caps and scoring his country's only try in the 2003 World Cup final.

But even he is in awe of what Burgess has achieved in Australia, where the ex-Bradford Bulls star led the South Sydney Rabbitohs to become NRL champions for the first time in 43 years. That is despite Burgess playing 79 minutes of the Grand Final with a fractured eye socket and cheekbone.

Sam Burgess playing for Great Britain against France in the 2013 World Cup quarter-final
Burgess helped England reach the semi-finals of the Rugby League World Cup in 2013

"The NRL has always been the proving ground," says Robinson, who came close to a move to Australia himself before a proposed deal fell through.

"Super League is great, but if you want to test yourself, you really go to the NRL. He's done it. Looking at his last-ever game, I think he's had four plates in his cheekbone.

"That injury was in the first minute, but he goes on the play the game. He gets man of the match and he finishes his stint at South Sydney on such a high.

"I've not seen many players, if any, that pound for pound can physically hit people like he does.

"He's a very intimidating figure. He's one of the best in the world.

"It's a shame that Bath play so far away from where I live [in Huddersfield] because I'd be down there every week just looking for that collision."

Sam Burgess on the charge for South Sydney Rabbitohs against Canterbury Bulldogs in Australia's NRL Grand Final
Burgess helped South Sydney Rabbitohs to a 30-6 victory over Canterbury in the NRL Grand Final

But having conquered Australian rugby league, can Burgess now adapt to rugby union's Premiership? Robinson has faith.

He adds: "People have talked about him at back row, I've heard somebody say on the wing, but he's got to go straight into the centre.

"What Bath and hopefully England need to do is keep it simple. When I made the switch from league to union, the reason why I believe I did so well is I kept it simple. I did what came naturally to me and, as a result, I stood out from most others. That's the same with Sam.

"The first time I took the ball into a ruck, I got kicked to bits. That made me present the ball back a lot better. I think Sam will be a quick learner. He's going to come in, not as this superstar from the NRL but as a Yorkshire lad who loves rugby. He's got a new challenge.

Sam Burgess - From Bradford to Bath
Born: West Yorkshire, 14 December, 1988
Super League debut for Bradford Bulls, 2006
Great Britain debut against New Zealand, October 2007
Signs for South Sydney Rabbitohs, September 2009
Agrees three-year deal with Premiership rugby union side Bath, February, 2014
Wins NRL Grand Final in last match for South Sydney, October 2014
Wins Clive Churchill Medal as best player in the final
First Englishman to be named International Rugby League Player of the Year, October, 2014

"It's probably easier going from union to league because the game's a lot simpler. Rugby league is a very fast, physical game but it's quite simple. You contact, you get back, whereas with rugby union it's very complex. That's what I didn't fully appreciate when I made the switch, every breakdown, every time you take the ball.

"As a full-back in rugby union, there are so many options and if I do get caught and I'm isolated, then I'm in trouble. In rugby league, I could run anywhere, take the tackle and my support would get there within a few seconds. It's going to be difficult, you can over-complicate.

Six famous rugby cross-code converts

"He'll want to do well for Bath. They've not taken a gamble, they've played a really good card in getting him over. He'll see, like I did, that on the horizon there's a chance to play for England and to be a dual-code international. It's something he probably never dreamed of when he was younger, but he's got the opportunity and he'll know in getting his head down, doing a lot of hard work, it'll come.

"It's come at a very good time. He's not 30, 31, 32. He's 25. He's made a conscious decision to come and target at this time. One of the goals for him is playing in a World Cup.

"When I made the switch, it wasn't because I fell out of love with rugby league, it's because I'd achieved so much at such a young age. That next step was at international level. Maybe this is the same with Sam.

Nimble and blessed with some of the quickest feet in the sport, Robinson was one of the smaller men of international rugby at 5ft 7in. Burgess is a comparative giant at 18 stone and 6ft 5in.

Robinson spent time on loan with Bath in 1996, before switching codes permanently with Sale in 2000.

And while they may be very different physical specimens, Robinson sees a lot of himself in Burgess - and not just because both have chosen The Rec as their entry point into union.

Sam Burgess with (left to right) brother Luke, mother Julie and brothers George and Thomas
Burgess lost his father Mark to illness but led the family down under, with mother Julie and Sydney team-mates and brothers (left to right) Luke, George and Thomas

Both men have overcome adversity. Abandoned by his father before he was born, Robinson grew up on the tough Leeds estate of Harehills. His mother - a cleaner - was beaten by his stepfather and Robinson fell into alcoholism before rugby provided an outlet and he faced up to his demons, becoming a born-again Christian.

Unlike Robinson, Bradfordian Burgess did grow up knowing his father Mark - a former semi-pro rugby league player. But agonisingly, he then lost him to motor neurone disease when Sam was still a teenager.

Sam's subsequent - and ultimately triumphant - journey to Russell Crowe's Rabbitohs four years ago, along with his three rugby league-playing brothers and mother Julie, already reads like a Hollywood script. And now a new chapter in a remarkable sporting narrative is about to begin.

"It's amazing what he's achieved," says Robinson.

"Having to go through all the challenges as a young lad, having to deal with the death of his father. It's almost like he's become the father of his family looking after his younger brothers. It's a testament to him and I'm convinced that he'll do really well. He's got the talent and he's got the attitude as a world-class player."

Burgess leaves rugby league on a high, having just become the first Englishman ever to be crowned International Rugby League Player of the Year.

Now he hopes to set the world of union alight and help his country become world champions, just like another Yorkshireman did more than a decade ago.


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