Head and shoulders above rest, Burrell gets chance

Odd one out - Luther Burrell back left, representing Huddersfield RUFC juniors
Odd one out - Luther Burrell back left, representing Huddersfield RUFC juniors
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Take a look at the inset picture below and spot the odd one out.

That lad far left on the back row of the picture is Luther Burrell, aged 10, representing Huddersfield rugby union club’s junior team.

Sixteen years later he will make his debut for England tonight in the Six Nations opener against France at the iconic Stade de France in Paris.

It will cap a remarkable journey for the Huddersfield lad who could have played rugby league or basketball, but chose union as his career.

Through loan moves that left him questioning his decision, to representing the West Indies at the Hong Kong Sevens via an email from his mother to then Leeds Carnegie academy director Stuart Lancaster to give him another chance to make the grade – no one can deny Burrell has earned his stripes.

That pleading note Mrs Burrell wrote to Lancaster, the man who is now showing faith in him at the highest level, is the story that best encapsulates a man who tonight reaches the pinnacle of his career thus far.

But what about the young Luther Burrell, the boy who loved playing any sport and dared to dream?

“Yes, he was a big lad for his age, but he also had a bit of puppy fat,” laughs Paul Sharrock, Burrell’s coach at Huddersfield RUFC from Under-10s all the way up to Under-17s.

“Luther had such great pace and power. He was such a strong lad.

“Because he had this background in playing rugby league he could toss these really long passes out of both hands.

“I saw him throw a pass this year for Northampton Saints that was like a double miss-pass – but he was throwing those sorts of passes for us when he was 13.

“The only problem was our wingers weren’t quick enough to keep up with him and collect the pass.

“As coaches we wanted him to do the simple things.

“In some ways he held our team back and the development of our players, because when he got the ball he would generally score.

“He had a spell of about three months when he played just rugby league, and our side developed more in that period than it did at any other time.

“In a way, how good he was had a detrimental effect on the rest of our team – but that’s certainly not to say it wasn’t a joy having him in our ranks for seven years.”

Burrell would play both union and league at the weekends, but he was also a keen basketball player at school, loved to go ten-pin bowling on a Saturday morning and was a decent golfer.

Yet rugby was his passion, and if union dominated the weekends of his youth, in the week he would play rugby league for his secondary school, All Saints Catholic High in Huddersfield.

“He played rugby league primarily for us because we weren’t a union school. I think we only played a couple of union games,” explains Neil Kelly, a PE teacher at All Saints who taught Burrell between 1999 and 2004.

“But in truth he was fantastic at all sports.

“Luther was a great lad, a gentle giant really.

“He was very popular and was never in any trouble.

“He was also a very good basketballer and was gifted at all ball games.

“He played in the same rugby league team as Jermaine McGillvary, who now plays for Huddersfield Giants.”

If there was a negative, it was Burrell’s defending, something that has only been ironed out in the last couple of seasons under Saints head coach Jim Mallinder.

“His weakness, and this was something Stuart Lancaster picked up on when he joined the Carnegie academy at 17, was his tackling,” says Sharrock.

“It was very lazy, and to be fair he didn’t get much help at junior level because opposition players would see his size and attack down the other wing.

“Not that he ever went looking to tackle.

“I remember one time when he was about 16 I tried to inspire him to tackle by asking him to hit me on the sideline.

“It was teeming with rain at a game in Thorne in Doncaster and he hit me so hard I went sliding on my backside for about 10 metres.

“I told him to go out and do that to the opposition.

“When you watch him now at Northampton you see that’s the area of his game that has improved the most.

“Because of his work-rate, the defensive side of his game has come on so much.”

Kelly counters: “I don’t remember him being a weak tackler, per se, or him having any weaknesses for that matter.

“Having said that, with his size opposition players probably veered away from him. He never had to try that hard as a defender.”

What they both agree on is Burrell’s undoubted talent, even at such a young age, and how much of a good friend he was to all his team-mates.

“He was a very popular member of the team and remains so to this day,” says his union coach Sharrock.

“He often comes back to the club and keeps in touch with his old team-mates.

“Luther was so laid-back, which meant he got overlooked for Yorkshire honours until he was about 15, but that was just his way.

“I’ve been a PE teacher for over 30 years and it’s not often you see someone who has pure talent – but that’s what Luther had.”

Kelly, his league mentor, adds: “To be honest, I didn’t think a day like this would ever come.

“But then again I didn’t think Jermaine McGillvary would be a rugby league star because he played mainly football at school.

“I knew Luther was very talented and would be capable of making a living out of being a professional sportsman, at whatever sport.

“But to have achieved international honours – that’s fantastic.

“I’m as pleased and delighted as anybody for Luther because he was a great lad and he’s worked very hard.

“The whole school is very proud of him.”

As should every sporting team and association in the Huddersfield area, who either played with or against the man-mountain of a boy who tore teams asunder as a junior and now gets set to pit his wits against the best union players in the world.