Dewsbury’s finest Sam Burgess is probably already more famous as a rugby union player than a league one – and he hasn’t laced a boot in the 15-a-side code yet.
Burgess dealt rugby league – and the England national team in particular – a painful blow this week when he confirmed he will leave South Sydney at the end of the forthcoming NRL season to begin a three-year contract with Aviva Premiership club Bath.
The move had been predicted for a while, but is still a shock given Burgess’ popularity in Australia and how much he seemed to be enjoying life at South Sydney, where his three brothers Luke, George and Tom also play.
Burgess may well be England’s best player at the moment. Based on his last competitive game, the World Cup semi-final against New Zealand at Wembley three months ago, it’s difficult to think of anybody challenging him for the title.
The national team will be poorer without him and so will the game, but it is something league is having to get used to. Rugby union is the richer sport and the Aviva Premiership has a higher salary cap than First Utility Super League.
England captain Kevin Sinfield has said he doubts Burgess will have crossed codes for money, suggesting it is more about the challenge of mastering – and representing his country in – a new sport.
Only Burgess can say for sure, but the reality is probably a bit of both.
It is disappointing he has gone and there will be some who say Burgess has turned his back on the sport which made him.
That’s an emotional argument, but he is a professional athlete and nobody should blame Burgess for being tempted by the riches on offer in the 15-a-side code.
Allowing players to cash in on their talent was one of the factors behind rugby league’s formation 119 years ago. At least league will not turn its back on Burgess in the way union did with players who crossed codes in the 20th century.
There’s also the prospect, unlikely though it may be given he is staying at Souths until the end of the 2014 NRL season, of playing for England in next year’s rugby union World Cup.
Not only can union offer extra money to top athletes, there’s greater exposure in the kicking code – at least compared to rugby league in this country – and it will open more doors when Burgess eventually decides to hang up his boots, though at 25 he has at least another decade in front of him as a player.
There won’t be much difference at club level, but whenever he dons an England jersey – assuming he proves good enough to do so – he will run out in front of packed house, which isn’t the case in league.
Last year’s World Cup, which is apparently when negotiations began, was a huge success, but where’s the follow up? Almost three months after the sold-out final at Old Trafford, rugby league’s future international programme has yet to be confirmed, though at least the venue for the 2017 World Cup was announced yesterday.
It’s clear players in both codes want to play at the highest level, which means representing their country. League offers fewer opportunities to do that than union and that’s an issue the 13-a-side game needs to address. Super League needs more income so clubs can offer the sort of wages needed to attract and keep top players. A “marquee player” exemption to the salary cap is likely and don’t be surprised to see Burgess returning to league with Salford Red Devils when his Bath contract expires.