THE IRONIC hashtag #BlameBurgess trended on social media two years ago after England’s union team embarrassingly crashed out of their own World Cup, but for a while lame Burgess threatened to be the story of the current rugby league tournament.
The decision to fast-track cross-code star Sam Burgess into the national side was regarded by many in the 15-a-side code as the key reason England failed to qualify for the knockout stages in 2015, but the next three weeks could make him an England rugby league legend.
The Dewsbury-born 28-year-old has not had the happiest of times at World Cups in either code, having missed the 2008 league tournament through injury and featured in England’s agonising last-gasp semi-final defeat by New Zealand at Wembley four years ago.
But that was then and now is the time for Burgess to shine. Since his return from what league fans refer to as ‘the dark side’ Burgess has not quite recaptured the form he showed before joining Bath in 2014, but on his day he remains one of England’s true world-class players.
He is also the team’s talisman and his comeback from a knee injury suffered in the opening match of the current tournament, against Australia last month, will give England a huge lift going into Sunday’s quarter-final against Papua New Guinea.
Burgess may not be the official captain, but he is an on-field leader and combines pace and power with size and skill, all characteristics that will be needed in what promises to be a testing encounter. His recall may be a risk, but it is worth the gamble.
England are a better team with Burgess on the field, whether he is fully fit or not. Like past captain Jamie Peacock, he has the ability to inspire players around him by his sheer presence and if they are to go all the way to the final – and win it – Wayne Bennett’s men will need his contribution.
Bennett has been criticised for his team selections since becoming England coach ahead of the 2016 season. The fact Warrington Wolves – who finished ninth in Super League – have more players in the World Cup squad than runaway league leaders Castleford Tigers suggests reputation still counts more than form.
But the balance looks to be right for Sunday’s game, with full-back Gareth Widdop and stand-off Kevin Brown retaining their positions after effective performances against France last week.
Leeds Rhinos’ Ryan Hall and Kallum Watkins are recalled along with Elliott Whitehead and Josh Hodgson. James Roby and Ben Currie switch to the bench and Stefan Ratchford, Mark Percival, George Williams, Scott Taylor and Castleford’s Mike McMeeken drop out.
England should be too good for the Kumuls – though if the game was being staged in Port Moresby it might be a different story – but have yet to put together an 80-minute performance. If they do, they are capable of beating anyone.
Less than that might be enough this weekend, but probably not against likely semi-final opponents Tonga and certainly not when Australia are the opposition.
Papua New Guinea have an injury doubt over winger Garry Lo, who has signed for Castleford from Sheffield Eagles.
Former Leeds hookers James Segeyaro and Paul Aiton are both in their starting 13.
Lo is rated a 50-50 chance, according to assistant Papua coach Marcus Bai.
Lo came off with an ankle injury in the Kumuls’ 64-0 win over the United States on Sunday and attended training at Xavier College on the outskirts of Melbourne in a protective boot.
“We’re looking at him, but it might be Thursday or Friday before we’ll know,” said Bai. “I’d say he’s 50-50.
“We’ve got two boys who are waiting in the wings,” said the former Hull, Leeds and Bradford winger. “Michael (coach Marum) will have the last say and, if he’s not right, he’s not going to be selected. Stargroth (Amean) can play full-back and wing and a bit of centre and Thompson Teteh can play centre and second-row, also on the wing, and those boys are 100 per cent.”
Teenage stand-off Lachlan Lam, son of former Wigan and Papua New Guinea half-back Adrian Lam, has been left out despite scoring two tries on debut against the Hawks.
Lam, who missed training to attend to family matters in Sydney, makes way for PNG Hunters captain Ase Boas, recalled alongside younger brother Watson after being rested on Sunday, but is tipped to have a bright future.
England: Widdop, McGillvary, Watkins, Bateman, Hall, Brown, Gale, Hill, Hodgson, Graham, S Burgess, Whitehead, O’Loughlin. Substitutes: Walmsley, T Burgess, Currie, Roby.
Papua New Guinea: Mead, Olam, Ottio, Macdonald, Lo, A Boas, W Boas, Meninga, Segeyaro, Page, Martin, Minoga, Aiton. Substitutes: Baptiste, Amean, Albert, Griffin.