IN BECOMING the hottest property in world rugby, Sam Burgess has turned the clock back two decades.
Since rugby union went openly professional 20 years ago, it has been league clubs who have had to protect their star players from - largely southern-based - raiders.
That reversed the trend of the previous century, when many of union’s best players “went north” to earn a living from playing rugby.
Rugby union’s massive television deals and income from events such as the Six Nations and World Cups have changed all that and there has been a drift of league’s leading talent into the 15-a-side code.
But the Sam Burgess situation is different. Little more than a year ago he did cross the great divide, leaving NRL outfit South Sydney Rabbitohs to join Bath Rugby Union Club.
Bath’s coach Mike Ford is another league convert, having played for clubs including Oldham, Wigan and Castleford and cutting his teeth as player-coach at Bramley in their dying days as a semi-professional side.
He saw the potential in Burgess, as did England coach Stuart Lancaster - another man with strong league connections, having been in charge of Leeds Rhinos’ union sister club, Leeds Tykes.
Burgess was controversially fast-tracked into the England squad for the recent World Cup and made three appearances in the tournament.
He was preferred to more experienced Northampton star Luther Burrell and used as an inside-centre, having played at blindside-flanker for Bath.
There was a feeling many in union were willing Burgess to fail and he was heavily criticised following England’s early exit from the tournament.
Burgess’s brother Thomas starred off the bench in England’s 26-12 win over New Zealand in last Sunday’s rugby league international and admitted afterwards: “He was probably treated a bit unfairly in my opinion and that’s probably what’s pushing him away at the moment.”
Bath gave Sam time off after the World Cup, fuelling speculation he is on the way out. Burgess was the England league team’s guest of honour at last month’s Test against France and sat alongside coach Steve McNamara during the game.
There have been reports he has told teammates at Bath and members of the England league squad he has played his last game of union.
The return of such a high-profile player would be a huge coup for rugby league and possibly a turning point, both discouraging union clubs from signing the rival code’s players and acting as a warning to those tempted to make a similar move.
Rhinos have told Bath they are keen to sign Burgess if and when he calls time on his union career, but a return to Souths is the most likely outcome.
Burgess joined them from Bradford Bulls in 2010 and was man of the match in their Grand Final victory on his final appearance.
Burgess’s mother Julie lives and works in Sydney, brothers Tom and George are still at Souths and he has an Australian partner.
The NRL are also keen to have Burgess back in the fold and have told Souths a transfer fee paid to Bath - who forked out £500,000 last year - would not count on their salary cap.
But it may be they can’t find room for him in their budget or squad for next year, which is where Rhinos could step in.
Rhinos have a vacancy for a leader following the retirement of club legends Kevin Sinfield, Jamie Peacock and Kylie Leuluai and having won all three trophies last year, they are in a healthy situation financially.
They are also willing to pay a transfer fee and that raises the intriguing possibility of Burgess spending a year as a marquee player - counting only £175,000 towards the salary cap - at Leeds, before returning to Souths.
It would be an expensive arrangement for Leeds, but the treble winners’ costs could be covered by an increase in attendances and sponsorship deals.