England coach Steve McNamara is ready to welcome Sam Burgess back into the national rugby league team – but not until the 2016 Four Nations Series.
McNamara, who gave Burgess his Super League debut as a teenager with Bradford in 2006, expressed his delight over his return to the 13-man code after a brief flirtation in rugby union with Bath and England.
But McNamara has not spoken to the dual-code international since the player’s return to South Sydney for 2016 was confirmed and has no intention of calling him into his current squad which is preparing for a potential series-clinching win over New Zealand in Saturday’s second Test in London.
“I have no idea where he is right now or what he’s doing right now,” McNamara said at England’s final team run at the Olympic Stadium yesterday.
“It’s a really good decision for rugby league and he’ll be a welcome addition to our group going forward.”
Burgess was a regular fixture in the national team after bursting onto the scene with Great Britain in their 3-0 series win over the Kiwis in 2007.
His last appearance for England was in the 2013 World Cup semi-final defeat to New Zealand and his availability will boost their hopes of going one better in the 2017 tournament in Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea.
“Thankfully Sam is back in rugby league and hopefully for good,” McNamara added.
“He was an integral part of our programme up to two years ago and we’ve missed him. There will be an opportunity to bring him back into the fold. As long as he is playing well enough and is injury-free, he’ll be available for next year’s Four Nations.
“But that’s not for now, we’ve got a great squad, we’re in a good place.”
McNamara, who is assistant coach of Souths’ arch-rivals Sydney Roosters, does not believe Burgess’ apparent failure to make the grade in rugby union will prevent other league players following suit in the future.
“I don’t like losing players from rugby league but our athletes are so good, our game does lend itself to players switching codes,” he said.
“We produce tremendous athletes.”
Bath have confirmed Burgess’ return to South Sydney for “personal reasons” while lamenting the departure of a player they insist “could have been a great”.
Burgess has left with immediate effect after completing only the first 12 months of his three-year contract after the Rabbitohs – the club he led to victory in the 2014 NRL grand final – paid in the region of £750,000 to secure his release.
England, who fast-tracked Burgess into their World Cup squad in defiance of logic, Bath and the player himself each shoulder varying degrees of blame for arguably the greatest cross code flop in history.
The Aviva Premiership runners-up, however, are adamant that the 26-year-old Yorkshireman would have succeeded in union had he given his apprenticeship more time.
“We hoped that Sam would stay at Bath,” said head coach Mike Ford. “He was doing really well in making the switch over from league and, given time, he could’ve been a great rugby union player.
“Unfortunately, for personal reasons, he is returning to Australia.”
Bath’s statement arrived 11 hours after news of Burgess’ exit had been confirmed by Souths and less than 48 hours after owner Bruce Craig had denied the end of his union career was imminent.
Family reasons were at the heart of the dual code international’s desire to leave as his twin brothers George and Tom play for the Rabbitohs and his older brother Luke plays for Manly Sea Eagles, while his mother Julie also lives in Sydney, the city where he is due to marry his fiancee Phoebe next month.
“I must thank Bath especially for granting my release to return home to my family, who I have missed more than I could have imagined,’’ said Burgess, who won five union caps and made 26 appearances for Bath.
“I had a wonderful time in England and learnt a lot about the game of rugby union as both a back and a forward, and I have definitely developed as an all-round player and athlete after that.”
However, it is understood that Burgess’ relationship with the hierarchy at Bath had soured while reports state that he had misgivings over playing blindside flanker, the position the club viewed as most suitable for his skill set. He was selected at inside centre by England.
Bath’s judgment in signing a player from Souths for a fee in the region of £270,000 and then paying him an annual salary thought to be £500,000, only to see him leave after one year, will also be questioned.
And while Burgess himself will be forever scarred by a union experiment that ultimately proved a costly distraction for club, country and player, it is England who are most culpable in this sorry story.
World Cup-winning coach Sir Clive Woodward has responded to events by issuing a savage rebuke of English rugby, which he describes as “embarrassing’’, “arrogant’’ and a ‘’laughing stock’’.
Writing in his column in the Daily Mail, Woodward said: ‘’I said last week that Sam Burgess is not to blame for this mess and I stand by it.
“But with his return to rugby league we’ve reached one of the all-time lows and most embarrassing points in English rugby history.
“The RFU has spent the last four years congratulating itself on the direction in which we’re heading, but the truth is we have marched confidently into a total mess. The review after the 2011 World Cup was a shambles.
“Players and coaches let down by media leaks, good men exposed as scapegoats and lesser men hiding and shirking responsibility. Nothing has changed.”
The Rugby Football Union has declined to comment at this time.
England’s coaching team, led by Stuart Lancaster, promoted Burgess into their World Cup squad despite the lack of evidence that he was ready for the global stage, seemingly in thrall to his ‘aura’ - a word frequently used to describe his presence.
His elevation was understood to be a divisive issue as some players questioned why he was picked ahead of the more established centre Luther Burrell, who must now have experienced the full spectrum of emotions since being jettisoned in August.
It is likely that Lancaster and his assistants Andy Farrell, Graham Rowntree and Mike Catt will pay the ultimate price, however, after staking their reputations on an experiment that failed so spectacularly.