Burgess backed to emulate the feats of fellow convert Robinson

Jason Robinson celebrates his try for England against Australia in the 2003 World Cup Final, proved to be one of the most successful 'converts' from league.
Jason Robinson celebrates his try for England against Australia in the 2003 World Cup Final, proved to be one of the most successful 'converts' from league.
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one year from today, the sport of rugby union will wake – most likely with a sore head – to newly-crowned world champions.

The general consensus among fans and pundits is that the eighth World Cup final at Twickenham on October 31, 2015, will be contested between hosts England and holders New Zealand.

Only a fool would write off South Africa and Australia this far out, and never discount the merits of France, who no matter the internal strife that engulfs their camp often manage to find a way to the final, as they did in Auckland three years ago.

But the widespread view is that the All Blacks are the best team in union – Stuart Lancaster believes in all of sport – and that a developing England, inspired by the groundswell of public euphoria, have the capacity to force a final showdown with them.

If they are to do so, many believe Sam Burgess will play a pivotal role.

Yet just as those forecasters are ignoring the claims of the Springboks and the Wallabies as potential hoisters of the Webb Ellis Trophy, so they seem equally keen to raise the expectation levels on the 25-year-old rugby league convert from Dewsbury to be England’s shining light.

Burgess arrived in the country on Wednesday after leaving league in Australia, met the media on Thursday, and will not pull on a Bath shirt for his first taste of the XV man game for another fortnight at the earliest.

Sensibly, the level-headed Yorkshireman is playing down his own potential role in a World Cup that begins in a little over 10 months, given how much he has to learn.

“Don’t get me wrong. I know there is a World Cup – I understand that,” says Burgess. “But I made the decision based on the challenge and being back in my home country.”

As talented a rugby player as he is, he will know as well as anyone the potential pitfalls that lie in wait, and that not all league converts become world-beating union stars.

Indeed, a look at the names of some of those who crossed codes suggests that failure is the most frequent outcome – that for every Jason Robinson, there is a Chev Walker.

Robinson is the most successful convert of all. The Leeds-born flier left Wigan for Sale in 2000 and within three months was in an England shirt, and a few months later, a Lions jersey. In 2003, he scored England’s try in the World Cup final.

Chris Ashton is another success story. He might have fallen out of Lancaster’s favour now, but he burst onto the union scene with his swallow dive and support play. Kyle Eastmond is another player at Bath, and although slower to adjust to the 15-man game, is currently the fittest and most in-form centre in England.

Former Widnes player Stephen Myler won a title with Northampton Saints last year, and is pushing George Ford for a place in Lancaster’s match-day squad for the Autumn Tests that begin next week.

For all the success stories, there have been too many who failed to make the grade.

Shontayne Hape, Lesley Vainikolo and Joel Tomkins were all fast-tracked into the England team and never made the same impact as they had on the 13-man game. Andy Farrell – a coach Burgess will no doubt lean on as and when he gains Test elevation – was troubled by injury after making the change late in his career.

Henry Paul is a league convert who divides opinion on his success and who enjoyed a long club career in union.

One man to have flip-flopped between the two is John Bentley, the business development manager at Yorkshire Carnegie and a man forever synonymous with a mazy run and try on Lions duty in South Africa 17 years ago.

As a prominent figure in both codes throughout the region, he knows the Burgesses well, and is as well-placed as anyone in the game to predict whether Sam will make it to next year’s World Cup.

“Sam is a sensational human being, first and foremost. He’s got a very strong family around him and some great people advising him,” says Bentley.

“And he’s a stunning rugby league player. He’s going to be like Sonny Bill Williams in union; a fantastic, creative player.

“The big difference he will find is that in rugby league when you get tackled, the game momentarily stops. In union, that’s when the game commences.

“But Sam is box office. He’s a fantastic ball carrier and his ability to offload in the tackle is going to be invaluable.”

The debate over where Burgess should play – centre or back-row – continues to rage. Bath coach Mike Ford refused to commit to either this week, but Bentley is adament there is only one position for such a creative force.

“I can’t see him playing anywhere else other than centre,” added Bentley.

“No way in a million years should he play in the back-row.

“The key to Sam is just get the ball in his hands. That’s why he’s come to union, to create opportunities.

“It all depends how he progresses at Bath but I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s involved in the World Cup.”