Sam Burgess: Bath's cross-code recruit takes plunge into union

Sam Burgess playing against Harlequins
Burgess's Bath debut was a 17-minute cameo off the bench against Harlequins

Bath trumpeted the signing of Sam Burgess by releasing an X-Factor style video, reeling off the stats he accumulated in the past five years for rugby league's South Sydney Rabbitohs to a bombastic string soundtrack.

His first press conferences were held to a backdrop of predictions and projections over whether he could represent England at next autumn's World Cup.

On Friday, though, it was all about being in the moment.

After two months out with a broken cheekbone and following two cameos off the bench, the 25-year-old made his first start as Bath beat Montpellier 32-12 in the European Rugby Champions Cup.

Chev Walker and Barrie-Jon Mather have both made the journey that Burgess is just embarking on - crossing from league to learn the ropes as union centres with Bath, in Walker's case, and Sale and England, in Mather's.

As Burgess makes the switch from being the world's best in one sport to complete novice in another, what challenges do they foresee for him?

The reception

For the 100 years between league breaking away and union finally starting to pay in 1995, the rivalry between the two codes was never friendly.

Converts to league were treated with suspicion on arrival in the 13-man game, while a ban from ever returning to union, even as a spectator, ensured codes were only crossed in one direction.

But rugby in 2014 is a very different, less divided place.

When Burgess came on for the final half hour of Bath's win over Montpellier in France last week, he replaced Kyle Eastmond, formerly of St Helens, and played outside George Ford, whom he once tried to convince to join him at old club Bradford Bulls.

One of Burgess's rivals for a spot in England's midfield is Luther Burrell, who played league for Huddersfield Giants as a teenager.

Joel Tomkins, now back with Wigan Warriors, was the man in possession of Stuart Lancaster's number 13 jersey a year ago, while Ben Teo'o, who played alongside Burgess for South Sydney just a few months ago, made his union debut for Irish province Leinster in October.

As well as familiar league faces, there is genuine enthusiasm about Burgess's arrival from those who have only watched him from across the divide.

Chev Walker playing for Bath against Gloucester
Walker earned a call-up to England Saxons during his time at Bath

Australian scrum-half Will Genia, a veteran of more than 50 Tests, could hardly emphasise enough how much he would like the chance to play alongside Burgess, saying it was "most definitely very appealing".

"Both games are professional and I think that rivalry between union and league comes from fans more than anything," said Walker, who moved to the Recreation Ground in 2006 from Leeds Rhinos.

"The Bath boys welcomed me with open arms and made me feel comfortable from the get-go. It was just a matter of getting in there and introducing yourself.

"There was a little initiation on the first away trip - I had to sing a song and I went for Baa Baa Black Sheep. I couldn't think of anything else - they just threw it upon me!

"But they made me feel that welcome and part of the boys that I was able to do it with a smile on my face."

The game

After Burgess's penultimate match for the Rabbitohs - a semi-final win over the Sydney Roosters - he was accosted by the opposition's Sonny Bill Williams.

"See you on the dark side," said Williams, on the brink of a return to union after a previous spell in which he won the World Cup with New Zealand.

Yet a reunion in union is far from certain.

Seven months after making his 15-a-side debut, Jason Robinson was scoring a try for the British and Irish Lions in their opening Test against Australia.

Seven months after arriving at Wasps, Lee Smith was already back at Leeds Rhinos having played just two first-team games of 15-a-side.

Between those two, there are plenty of other league players who have arrived to fanfare, and done decent, rather than world-beating, jobs in union.

Chris Ashton sparkled before falling out of form and favour, Andy Farrell's progress was hampered by a succession of injuries, Lesley 'the Volcano' Vainikolo failed to recreate his league pyrotechnics.

Barrie-Jon Mather playing for England against Wales in 1999
Mather's solitary England cap came in Wales' famous 32-31 win at Wembley in 1999

"Rugby league is a simple game - you catch, pass, tackle and run," explains Mather, who played at outside centre in England's Five Nations defeat by Wales in 1999 after his move from Castleford to Sale the previous year.

"There is the play of the ball, but that is nowhere near as technical as rugby union.

"You have to learn the body positions and different tactics depending on where you are on the field.

"It will be a shock to the system and he will feel a little bit lost and confused for quite a while."

Burgess's two appearances as a replacement have been full of cannonball physicality, channelled in less-than-textbook ways.

After chasing up one kick against Montpellier, he launched into a tackle so high it slipped clean over the top of his target.

Bath head coach Mike Ford insists that his charge can go low, with assistant Toby Booth adding that he will learn how to tweak his defence "on the job".

Getting his head around the breakdown may take more time.

In Burgess's early days at Bath's Farleigh House training headquarters, as he recovered from his facial fractures, he trained alongside injured flanker Francois Louw.

The pair spent time in an area of the gym known at the club as "the padded cell", with South African Louw putting on a ruck crash-course amid the crash mats.

"It is just such a different process. In league you take the tackle and you play the ball again as quick as you can. In union the tackle is just where it starts," explains Walker.

"That was the most physically demanding part of it for me, trying to get my head around the ruck - or not getting my head around the ruck as it may be.

"I could have hurt myself getting it wrong because it is not second nature.

"We were playing Saracens away towards the back end of the season and Richard Hill [the blind-side flanker who was a member of England's 2003 World Cup-winning team] was a proper gentleman - looking after me by telling me to get my head and eyes up when he had an opportunity to hurt me.

"That was 15 games into my union career and I still hadn't mastered it."

The town

It did not take long for Burgess to learn a lesson on the differences between life in Sydney with a population of 4.5m, and Bath, with roughly 50 times smaller.

At 05:30 GMT on one of his first mornings in the city, he could be found wandering the Georgian streets, decked out in full Bath tracksuit, searching in vain for a morning coffee.

But while Bath's cafe culture might not be as big, the spotlight could be even more fierce than in Sydney.

"In the mid 2000s, Leeds Rhinos were second string to the football team, who were playing in the Champions League," said Walker.

"When I got to Bath, though, everybody knew the rugby team. Even for the tourists who were coming in to the town, we were up there with the Roman Baths.

"When I was playing for Leeds I would go home and completely forget about work, but being a rugby league player who had been brought in and the attention that that attracted in the town was a bit more overwhelming than my day-to-day work."

The expectation

It is not just Bath's fans and millionaire owner Bruce Craig who are waiting for a return on their investment.

On the basis of Burgess's first competitive union carry in his 28 November debut against Harlequins, England coach Stuart Lancaster talked up his prospects of making the second-string Saxons side against the Irish Wolfhounds two months later.

That fast-track into the international set-up, and 2015 World Cup contention, could be derailed by Bath's apparent determination for Burgess to spend some of his limited game time in the back row.

It is there, rather than in midfield, that Bath need a star signing and, as the money behind his move, they feel no obligation to fit with Lancaster's plans.

"If he comes in as a back rower you have to almost say that is a three-year project and almost write off anything that you get out of the first year as a bonus," warns Mather, now general manager of New South Wales Rugby League.

"You have the breakdown, rucking and mauling and that is tough enough to learn, especially when you are playing against guys who it is second nature for.

"When you add line-out and scrum to that I think you are asking way too much of him, unless it is really a long-term project."

But Burgess is used to having a lot asked of him.

Five years ago, shortly after celebrating his 21st birthday at a bar in Leeds, he touched down half a world away to find himself heralded as the Rabbitohs' saviour.

"There are quiet hopes that Sam Burgess could become a new Sattler, a cardinal-red-and-myrtle-green messiah who can deliver rugby league's most successful club its 21st premiership after 39 lean years," reported the Sydney Morning Herald from his unveiling.

The 'Sattler' they referred to was former captain John. He had been the last man to lift the national title for South Sydney, leading them to victory in the 1970 final despite playing 77 of the 80 minutes with a jaw broken in three places.

Sam Burgess after South Sydney's Grand Final win
Burgess was awarded the Clive Churchill medal as South Sydney ended a 43-year wait for a Grand Final win

Fast forward to October 2014 and the newspaper's prophesy was realised with eerily painful accuracy.

With one hand on an ageing Sattler's shoulder and a man of the match award in the other, Burgess bid farewell to the club having played through a snapped cheekbone to deliver their elusive title.

"Sam is an outstanding freakishly talented athlete. I have achieved quite a lot in my career and I look at him and am in awe," adds Walker.

"We are a similar age coming from league and going to Bath, but Sam is a special, once-in-a-lifetime player.

"He is one of those players who has everything - he has drive, he is clearly tough, added to which he is the ultimate professional off the field and is humble. He is ridiculous."

Bath and England hope that description translates in the best possible way to Burgess's performances in the 15-man game.

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