SAM BURGESS admits he has experienced a “whirlwind” few years in sport but will rarely have been prouder than when he captains England’s rugby league side for the first time tomorrow.
The iconic forward leads his country against New Zealand in the Ladbrokes Four Nations opener at Huddersfield, nine years after the then prodigious Bradford Bulls teenager’s explosive Great Britain debut versus the Kiwis at the same venue.
Plenty has happened since with the Dewsbury-born player proving himself as a world great Down Under, where his heroic exploits saw South Sydney win the 2014 NRL Grand Final.
That, of course, pre-empted his controversial move to rugby union where, within nine months after debuting as a centre for Bath, he defied the odds, and a fair few critics, to do the same for England.
Remarkably, Burgess was selected for the World Cup but, after his country’s embarrassing pool-stage exit, and despite ample evidence to the contrary, he was widely lambasted for playing a critical role in their downfall.
Some of the criticism was vitriolic. However, the Yorkshireman has since insisted that was not the reason he made a swift return to Souths almost 12 months ago, more the fact he simply did not have enough ‘passion’ for union.
Now, with Sean O’Loughlin injured, he has been made captain of his country in the 13-man code, his largely recognisable face and gregarious character a PR dream as the sport looks to expand.
The 27-year-old maintains there is no trepidation after the pitfalls of what occurred the last time he was back playing on home soil in that ill-conceived World Cup programme last autumn.
“The reality of the situation is it’s not actually that bad,” said Burgess.
“The way it played out in the media, it sensationalised it a little bit. There’s no trepidation now, not at all. I am excited to come back and represent my country again, especially in rugby league, the game I grew up playing.
“I’ve learned a few things and being captain is not really going to change me or what I bring to the team. What is really important is performing for my team-mates and coach.
“I have learned a lot over the last 10 years, not just the last two or three. A lot has happened in the last 18 months that we all know about but positive things; mentally I had to get myself to a place to be successful.
“In union I was thinking 24/7 and learned what I needed to be successful.”
On the captaincy, Burgess added: “At Dewsbury Moor there is an honours board as you go in with players who have gone on to represent Super League clubs.
“I always dreamed of being put on that board, of representing a Super League club, never mind captaining my country.
“You do not think that is going to ever happen but to be given the captaincy is a real honour and something I do with pride.
“I will give it everything. I’ll be over the moon and will sing the anthem loud and proud.”
Burgess, who missed Saturday’s warm-up win in France due to a one-game ban, has plenty of experience to touch upon.
“I have been very fortunate in playing for some great captains,” he said.
“The first one that springs to mind is JP (Jamie Peacock). I’ve been a massive fan of Jamie’s since I was a young kid.
“I made my debut for Bradford against Jamie at Leeds and made my GB debut with Jamie against the Kiwis so it is funny we keep popping up with each other; I am now captain and he is team manager. We always seem aligned in our careers.
“I have a lot of respect for him and learnt a lot off him and Adrian Morley.”
The last time Burgess wore this England jersey was the 2013 World Cup semi-final when, despite his epic performance, his side were cruelly beaten by Shaun Johnson’s converted try with just 20 seconds left at Wembley.
“I have real mixed emotions from that day,” he recalled, with England yesterday winning the rights to host the 2021 World Cup.
“As a child I always wanted to play at Wembley. Having the chance with England is special enough and that was probably one of the greatest Test matches I have been a part of.
“It’s also one of the most enjoyable games I have played in. And then we lost.
“But I was proud of the team at the time and I have kind of moved on from it now. We should have shut the game out with 15, 20 minutes to go, but that is sport.
“That is where you have to learn to improve; in Test match rugby you have to take the chances you are given.”
The hope is Wayne Bennett, the esteemed Australian who has replaced Steve McNamara as England coach, will help them do that and achieve what none of their predecessors have since Great Britain’s Jim Challinor in 1972: win a major tournament.
Granted, England beat New Zealand in a Test series last year but their opponents are reigning Four Nations champions and Burgess said: “The Kiwis have as good a side as I’ve seen for a while. It will be a great challenge but we are there to get the victory and all know the importance of this one.”
Four Nations: Page 25