Planet Rugby

What to expect from 'Slammin' Sam'

17th February 2014 09:50

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Huge talent: Sam Burgess

Bath's $500,000 (AUS) outlay on Sam Burgess is an investment in his potential, although how he adapts to Union is of course unknown.

Such a significant sum though would not be thrown around by owner Bruce Craig, and friends, without some substance. What Bath and eventually England are getting is an astonishing athlete, crossing codes not at the tail end of his career but in his prime at 25.

By the time he returns to England, Burgess will have been playing in the NRL for five seasons. His first appearance for Bradford Bulls, aged 17, came with Shontayne Hape dubbing him as "Great Britain's Sonny Bill".

In a sense that is exactly what Bath and England will want him to be. At 6 ft 5 and over 18 stone, Burgess is a wrecking ball yet capable of producing the softest of touches with his hands.

He offers the kind of explosive bursts of power that Wales cherish from Jamie Roberts, except Burgess is taller and heavier. When Burgess faced up to Sonny Bill on Williams' return to the NRL last year, the Yorkshireman left him flat on his back:

What matters now for Burgess, and for England, is time. Burgess will join up with Bath in October, less than a year out from England's opening match of the Rugby World Cup against (most likely) Fiji on September 18.

The November Tests will come too soon for Burgess to break into the England squad, given he has never played the code before, leaving him three to four months to build up his understanding and earn valuable game time with Bath, before contending for a spot in the 2015 Six Nations - the time when England would look to have their starting XV set in stone.

From that point he would have five matches, plus the RWC warm-up games, in order to acclimatise to Test rugby and for England to build a system with him included.

In many ways parachuting Burgess in with such a small time frame goes against Lancaster's policy of building a solid framework over the next two years, but exceptions have to be made for exceptional talents.

The most obvious position for Burgess would be inside centre, where cross-code converts including Hape and Andy Farrell haven't previously succeeded.

England's attacking game is just starting to flourish, mainly thanks to the inclusion of Billy Twelvetrees alongside a more adventurous Owen Farrell - something which Lancaster mentioned to the Telegraph on Sunday.

"Owen is getting a lot more support from Billy Twelvetrees, a second organiser and that takes some of the pressure off him," said Lancaster.

"Owen is freer to make intuitive decisions rather than organisational ones. If you are the only person doing the organising, then that is what you tend to do and miss the other opportunities."

Asking Burgess to fill a similar role as Twelvetrees is highly demanding considering how little time he will have to adapt. A centre combination of Burgess and Manu Tuilagi would be explosive, but go against Lancaster's previously stated preference for two playmakers - currently supplied by Twelvetrees at 12.

That is a dilemma for Lancaster to work on as every inch of progress by Burgess is scrutinised, because if England's attack continues getting better then tampering with the formula would be questionable. England will play nine more Tests before Burgess might even get his chance at Test level.

None of that will matter though if Burgess makes the same impact on English rugby as SBW has in New Zealand. Again, the timing of his switch across codes at his age is a huge positive to go alongside his physicality, handling and talent.

Domestically, Bath should unleash a centre pairing of Burgess with Kyle Eastmond or Jonathan Joseph that could win them their first Premiership title since 1996. For England, if all goes well with Burgess converting to the sport, their chances of World Cup glory will improve.

by Ben Coles
@bencoles_

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