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Burgess must earn right to play for England
February 17, 2014
Sam Burgess Sam must "earn the right like anyone else" to play for England, Stuart Lancaster says © PA Photos

England rugby coach Stuart Lancaster has compared Sam Burgess with Sonny Bill Williams, but he has warned that the code-hopper has only an "outside chance" of being ready to play in the 2015 Rugby World Cup.

Burgess will begin a three-year contract with Bath Rugby in October after the Aviva Premiership club agreed a release fee with his National Rugby League team South Sydney Rabbitohs.

The move has been funded exclusively by Bath, so far, but Lancaster revealed the Rugby Football Union could yet be involved financially. "I think there are discussions ongoing," Lancaster said.

The decision of Burgess to change codes has been greeted with excitement, but Lancaster says he will not be rushed into the England team. Indeed, Lancaster issued a cold blast of reality when asked about suggestions that Burgess has been earmarked for the World Cup.

"Sam is going to have to earn the right like anyone else," Lancaster said. "I've never said he's going to be fast-tracked into the World Cup squad.

"I had a discussion with Sam's representatives and said there will be no short-cut into the next elite player squad [EPS] that we announce in January. I can't see for one minute that Sam Burgess is going to be in that EPS squad having played two months of rugby union. If he earns the right to be an EPS player, he will have to do it the way everyone else has done it - by playing well for his club.

"The reality is that he'll go to Bath as a Bath player, and play for Bath in the second half of next season.

"It's going to be extremely difficult for a player to come from rugby league in October and then play in the 2015 Six Nations.

"If he makes the transition smoothly and effectively, and begins to play well during the second half of that season, then there is an outside chance he could make the World Cup training squad.

"If he makes the World Cup training squad, there are two warm-up games before the squad is announced ... "

Burgess cited the 2015 Rugby World Cup when explaining his decision to switch codes, and, at 195cm and 112kg, he has the physical attributes needed to make an impact with Bath and England.

"The bigger the challenge for Sam, the more he rises to it. He raises his game. I liked that trait in people." Stuart Lancaster explains the attributes he likes most in Sam Burgess

Lancaster views Burgess in the mould of Sonny Bill Williams, who has represented New Zealand in both codes, switching in 2008 and helping the All Blacks win the 2011 Rugby World Cup as an effective impact substitute before dominating in the code the following season.

"The closest comparison I can make is Sonny Bill Williams, who was a forward in rugby league but played in the backs in union," Lancaster said. "When Sam was playing league for England at last year's World Cup, you could see him defending in the back line from set-piece."

While Lancaster has welcomed Burgess' move, describing him as a "great asset", his caution over anointing him as an international in waiting is dictated by a lengthy history of failed code breakers.

Jason Robinson's brilliance shone in both formats, but he is the exception when compared to aborted experiments such as Barrie-Jon Mather, Henry Paul, Lesley Vainikolo and Andy Farrell.

Lancaster met Burgess during a visit to Australia in 2013, and liked what he saw.

"Sam is clearly a world-class rugby league player," Lancaster said. "What impressed me more so than his ability to carry the ball, pass and tackle, was his mental toughness and fortitude, his leadership and ability to take on a challenge.

"For a player to go to Australia at 18 because he wanted to challenge himself at a higher level, and now to challenge himself to get into a World Cup squad within nine months, is tremendous.

"He's leaving as an iconic player in league, and having to start from scratch.

"What impresses me is his mental toughness and his leadership. Those are the assets I am excited about the most. The bigger the challenge for Sam, the more he rises to it. He raises his game. I liked that trait in people."


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