Why Slammin' Sam Burgess Was A True Rugby League Pioneer

The dual-code star has been forced to quit at 30 due to a shoulder injury
13:02, 30 Oct 2019

It was Hollywood star Russell Crowe who plucked Sam Burgess out of Super League back in 2009, setting the wheels in motion for a move which would revolutionise British rugby league.

"When I talked to Sam as a young 20-year-old, itching to make his mark in the NRL, we agreed he was coming to Australia with one mission: To help break South Sydney's premiership drought," explains Crowe, the owner of the South Sydney Rabbitohs.

I'm quite sure anyone who witnessed the Grand Final on October 5th 2014 will never forget the heroism and determination on display.

It is safe to say that Burgess' performance at the ANZ Stadium will never be forgotten, with Crowe just one of many to pay tribute to the England forward following the confirmation of his retirement from rugby league at the age of 30 due to an ongoing shoulder injury.

Burgess' exit from the game marks the end of a phenomenal journey which has seen a young lad from Dewsbury become a household name on the other side of the globe, paving the way for British players to take Australia by storm.

"This decision was one of the hardest decisions I've had to make in my life, however, the decision was out of my hands essentially,” Burgess explained in a statement released on Wednesday.

"I am no longer able to be myself day in, day out on the training field and consequently the playing field."

He made one hell of an impact in his 13-year career.

Having made his name with Bradford Bulls in the Super League and gained attention for his huge hit on Fuifui Moimoi as a Great Britain debutant at just 18, Burgess made the life-changing decision to swap Bradford for Australia in 2010.

Persuaded by Crowe to take the plunge down under at only 20 years of age, Burgess joined Gareth Ellis as just the second British international playing in the NRL at that time.

Yet his influence would be far-reaching, with 12 Brits plying their trade in the competition during Burgess’ final season in 2019.

From the moment he stepped foot on Aussie soil, Burgess threw his heart and soul into being a hit down under. So big an instant success was he that the Rabbitohs went about snapping up his three brothers, with elder sibling Luke and younger twins George and Tom following in Sam’s footsteps over the next few years. Mum Julie even followed her boys and has made her home in Sydney despite the sons’ careers having led them back and forth across the globe since then.

It was well beyond his own family that Sam’s quality was being felt though. In 2013, he was England’s star player at the Rugby League World Cup, and 12 months later he would turn in the performance for which his career will always be best remembered.

In the 2014 NRL Grand Final, with the Rabbitohs chasing their first title in 43 years, Burgess shattered his cheekbone in the first drive of the game after a collision with England team-mate James Graham.

Encouraged to leave the field to have the injury seen to, Slammin’ Sam played on. What followed was the display of his life, playing the full 80 minutes to lead the ‘Bunnies’ to a 30-6 win over Canterbury. It was an episode which made him the first non-Australian to win the Clive Churchill Medal, awarded to the man of the match in the Grand Final.

After that game, having won the big prize in Australia, Burgess took on another significant challenge by returning to the UK and switching codes. Rugby Union side Bath snapped him up and he was immediately elevated into the national setup. But his performances for England in the 2015 Rugby World Cup drew heavy criticism as he was part of the side that went out in the group stage, England’s worst-ever performance at the event.

He returned to rugby league and the Rabbitohs almost immediately, claiming his: “heart wasn’t in rugby union”. He was back to his best in no time at all, and in 2017 he was handed the honour of leading out England in a Rugby League World Cup final following the withdrawal of Sean O’Loughlin through injury.

It was a point lost on nobody that coach Wayne Bennett had selected seven NRL-based players in England’s squad, with Burgess having paved the way for a number of compatriots to follow suit. The commonplace nature of switches from Super League to the NRL these days has everything to do with Sam’s initial determination and will to succeed.

He became the superstar name in the NRL. His former England teammate James Graham echoed the thoughts of many others when summarising his career for NRL.com:

He's one of the best players of the generation to play. He will be remembered for a very long time, especially for what he did for South Sydney in ending their title drought.

"It's been an absolute pleasure to share the field with him. He's taken me further. He's one of those players that when you played with him you wanted to go the extra mile because it's him telling you to do it or because you're playing by his side."

A plucky Yorkshireman who used to get mocked for his broad accent is now featuring as a TV pundit and his word is revered around the country. Voted as one of the best players of the decade, the lad from Dewsbury became a true rugby league trailblazer.

What a career!

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