Since rugby turned professional in 1995, ten players have represented England after switching to the 15-man code from rugby league.
Sam Burgess will become the 11th this evening – and he is creating more buzz and debate than any of his dual-code predecessors.
Just ten months into his union career, “Slammin’ Sam” will make a last-ditch attempt to get into England’s Rugby World Cup squad when he plays against France at Twickenham.
For that reason, it’s as much an audition as a debut for a player whom England coach Stuart Lancaster could end up staking his reputation on at next month’s global showpiece.
“I do think the longer Sam plays the game and the more opportunities we give him, the better he’ll become,” Lancaster said. “This is the next step: to see if he can make the step to becoming an international player.”
There are reservations over Burgess, though. He is only being considered as a centre by Lancaster, despite failing to impress in that position in his first season with Bath in the English league because of his positioning and reading of the game.
Burgess was also tried out as a blindside flanker by Bath, and fared better in that position.
However, England are well stocked in the back row but short of hard-running ball carriers in midfield, especially with Manu Tuilagi unavailable for the World Cup following his conviction for assaulting a taxi driver and two female police officers during a night out.
For that reason, a strong showing at inside centre against the French could earn Burgess a World Cup call-up as one of England’s likely four centres.
Ex-England players fear it could be the wrong decision. Martin Johnson, England’s World Cup-winning captain from 2003, said Burgess may struggle with the “nuances” of playing at centre “which aren’t in rugby league.”
And former scrum-half Matt Dawson said that, in detailing Burgess’s attributes, “Lancaster didn’t talk about reading the game, game-management, analysis, positioning. Burgess hasn’t got it.”
Former centre Mike Tindall expressed concerns about Burgess’s “defensive decision-making”, saying “his initial instinct is to chase a hit and that might mean there may be the opportunity to play around him a little bit”.
“I prefer him in that No 6 role where he can stick to his primal game,” Tindall said.
Burgess arrived in union in October last year, a month after ending his rugby league career by guiding the South Sydney Rabbitohs to victory in the NRL grand final. In that match, he fractured his eye socket and cheekbone in the first minute of the match, but played on and became the first non-Australian to be named man of the match in the final.
That cemented the “hard man” image of a man who is 1.96 metres tall and weighs in at 114 kilograms.
England’s tactics regarding Burgess should be simple against France: Give him a crash ball and let him wreak havoc.
“If you are struggling to get over the gain-line, then all you have to do is give it to Sam and he will get you that momentum back,” said Henry Slade, who will be Burgess’s midfield partner at Twickenham on Saturday.
“He is a big weapon to be able to use. He also has a lot of experience in league and played in a very successful side. He has got that experience of being a winner.”
That could be the attribute that persuades Lancaster to take a gamble on Burgess for the World Cup. Burgess is a big-game player with a strong character, and commands respect from those around him.
He’ll still needs to perform against France, however.
“What happens in the next two weeks will finalise the decision,” Lancaster said. “Sam’s not got a free pass.”