Wednesday 18 September 2019

Union in a league of its own

The less-than lamented departure of Burgess should end cross-code experiment which rarely worked

Montpellier's New Zealander centre Shontayne Hape
Montpellier's New Zealander centre Shontayne Hape
Sam Burgess has returned to Rugby League after his brief stint as an England Union player
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

And so Sam Burgess takes his leave and heads back to Sydney - his reputation slightly worse than Georgie Burgess who got Shar-den Curley up the duff in The Snapper.

We learn from ornithologists that the cuckoo lays its egg in another birds' nest along with the eggs of those birds. When the cuckoo hatches, he scoffs most of the food brought by his 'parents' who incredibly don't notice the difference. He kills most of the natural offspring and then buggers off after the free ride. What we learn from most of the cross-code transfers is that we never learn. What is the success rate I wonder?

For every Jason Robinson we have about seven Shantayne Hapes. These guys never really make it. They never assimilate into the union ethos. They are never as good as the hype or the rugby league try highlight video makes them out to be. The amount of time and effort spent and the number of union players that are disenfranchised on their arrival - it just isn't worth the hassle.

This is a slow-cooked hypothesis - but I don't think certain sections of the home union secretariat are particularly intelligent when it comes to understanding the wide differences between the codes - I am throwing that barb mainly at the RFU. These names might not sound too familiar to you - Lesley Vainakolo, Henry Paul, Andy Farrell, Shontayne Hape and latterly Chris Ashton. Ashton, in fairness to him, did make the switch to union successfully but you couldn't warm to him even if you were cremated beside him.

I think there is a philosophy which prevails in the RFU where they have tried to put another nail in the coffin of rugby league. To do that they have tried to sign as many marquee names in rugby league as they can. They do this whether the players they target are fit for union or not and they seem oblivious as to how many union-reared prospects they discommode as a result. Some of these players weren't even English. The hapless Hape, born and reared in New Zealand, played rugby league for his native country but gets to play more than a dozen times for England on the back of a six-year residency.

Maybe it was a cunning plan. On the African plains lions kill hyena puppies, not for food, but because they are competition for food. Maybe if the RFU kept taking rugby league's big names they would eventually kill off the appeal of the rival code.

When union was trying to find its feet in the early days of professionalism, it seemed that every premiership club had a league convert, or several, in their roster. They were like the cabbage patch dolls of their time - everyone had to have one. Nobody had the balls to say that nearly all of them were not good enough. They had no sense of the game of union and the many disciplines which were mutually exclusive eluded them. Quite a few of them couldn't tackle either.

League is essentially a running game. You have to be able to pass and tackle and the skill players need to be able to kick. You don't need to hold the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics at Cambridge to understand or read the game.

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Union is so much more of a multi-faceted game. Line-outs, scrummaging (real scrummaging), kick-offs, mauling, rucking, tactical kicking on a completely different level - how the hell does anyone think league players can adapt within a year?

I don't know Sam Burgess but came across him in an open-zone media session. He is an impressive physical specimen and was good copy for the media pack. I can see what Lancaster was after - a big, quick, and powerful inside centre with good lines, good speed and someone who could handle himself in contact.

The real quality that he was to bring was the Sonny Bill off-load ability - he was good at that. The English press missed the point and talked about problems in his defensive alignment and who he should partner. It didn't work out. It was never going to! Lancaster bottled the calls in the clutch moments and the moment was gone.

The point that gets me though was that Lancaster and, more importantly Andy Farrell, pursued Burgess aggressively. When they got him they did not know what to do with him. Sifting through the ashes of England's challenge we learn that Farrell's sphere of influence seemed to be greater than Lancaster's.

The calls were the result of bad chemistry and poor leadership. Burgess heads home to sunny Sydney. The 2014/1025 season - a speed bump or asterisk when his league career is over. At no stage was he ever going to stay and finish his career in union.

No sympathy is required or offered. Burgess is a hard-nosed professional sportsman and was well remunerated for the switch. He was equally well compensated on his return. He won't be crying into a schooner of Fosters because his union project didn't work out. Russell Crowe is welcome to him.

And so this signals the final crossover experiment of a major league player to union - we hope - although you can still never underestimate the determination of a cabal of clowns in a committee room to try it again.

What else? Well I am glad to report that the league influence is quickly diminishing and the malign presence is lessening. Ten years ago everyone had a rugby league defence coach or attack coach. At this World Cup none of the major southern hemisphere teams had league coaches of any kind in their roster.

It was gratifying to see Stephen Larkham, whose magical hands lit up his Wallaby career, have such a significant input into the Wallabies' forward progress. Nathan Grey, too - a union defence coach following from his formidable reputation as a defensive player for the Wallabies. France, Scotland and Italy now have no league influence. Ireland and Les Kiss have parted company. Interesting to see if anyone new will be added to the ticket.

Andy Farrell, it seems, will lose his job and follow Stuart Lancaster. England had better choose wisely with their replacements. That will leave the admirable Sean Edwards left as the last major influence from league. He has spent so long in union now that there is a lot of union DNA coursing through his veins. He may not make it all the way to 2019 with Gatland but he has undoubtedly been good for Wales - if not the game.

Wales' game now is based squarely on their defence. It is massed, determined and almost impenetrable and it reflects a lot of their defence coach's personality. Edwards can come and go now when he pleases. There will be plenty of people looking for his signature when he eventually decides to go.

As the influence of league virtually dies out in union - we have to ask what effect it has had on the game. What is the legacy? Massed defence and the choke tackle? Offensively I don't think league has offered a huge amount. New Zealand and Australia, as they always do, will reinvent union back play and we in the northern hemisphere will follow - always a few years later. Time at last to mothball any neurotic insecurity and trust our own to run the game.

See ya Sam!

p.s. The 2015 World Cup was certainly a good tournament but maybe the spin doctors and the hypemeisters can take their foot off the pedal a bit now!

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