‘Surreal’ elevation puts Burrell on the cusp of big breakthrough

LeLeeds Carnegie's Luther Burrell
LeLeeds Carnegie's Luther Burrell
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AROUND the same time as Luther Burrell was taking a call from the Yorkshire Post on Thursday to gauge his reaction to his inclusion in the England squad, Stuart Lancaster was extolling the virtues and versatility of the robust centre to a small group of journalists.

“I could easily see a scenario where Luther and Billy Twelvetrees are paired up,” mused Lancaster about his plans for his centre partnership for the first Six Nations assignment in Paris on February 1.

“In the same way that Billy played with Brad Barritt or Manu Tuilagi, you use one of the centres as someone who gets you across the gain line, and another who becomes an option to get you across the line but is also a second distributor and ball player.

“What we need to look at in terms of selection is who the best guy to defend at 13 will be. And Luther has had plenty of experience doing that at Sale.”

Burrell was not party to the praise. His Thursday evening was spent climbing down off the ceiling after being named in Lancaster’s 35-man Six Nations squad, before turning his attentions to his current club Northampton’s latest Heineken Cup appointment tomorrow

“I’m absolutely chuffed, I don’t really know what to say,” was the traditional No 12’s response to being called up for a third time by Lancaster.

“I’ve come such a long way and to be a part of that squad going forward feels quite surreal.”

Quite how he will have reacted to Lancaster suggesting his long-awaited debut is now a matter of weeks away is anyone’s guess.

Utter bewilderment no doubt, with the requisite amount of pragmatism. For Burrell is the oldest of the uncapped quintet selected by England for the European challenges ahead, and therefore his has been the more arduous journey.

There has been no fast-tracking to national honours or pathway identified from his teenage years.

When he was 15 Burrell was still playing both forms of rugby, for Huddersfield’s union team at Lockwood Park on a Saturday morning and the Giants’ junior league team on a Sunday.

That he got a chance at the professional game owes as much to his mother’s persistance and the good graces of Leeds Carnegie’s then academy director than anything else.

“All I ever wanted to be was a rugby player. My parents knew that and ferried me here, there and everywhere, playing union on a Saturday and league on a Sunday,” said Burrell.

“I went to a Carnegie trial one year but I got overlooked by the selectors. I was angry and gutted, and had no way of getting that anger out because the trials only came round once a year.

“My mum, being a mum, wrote a letter to the academy director asking him to give me another chance. A week later, I’d been invited to the club and within two months I had my first contract.”

That academy director was Stuart Lancaster.

“It’s never mentioned between me and Stuart now. It’s purely professional between the two of us. He wants to get the best out of me,” continued Burrell.

“I don’t want people to think I’m in the England team because Stuart and I have history.

“I’ve had to work exceptionally hard and now that hard work is being rewarded.”

It is Burrell’s perseverance as much as anything else that is being acknowledged now.

He calls his journey from the playing fields of Lockwood Park to the cusp of an England start as a “helluva ride”, taking in an ankle ligament injury when on a dual contract at Leeds Rugby, loan spells with Otley and Rotherham and a move to Sale that never worked out.

“I’ve had a couple of setbacks and knocks to my confidence,” he admitted.

“I’ve had to make some tough decisions but I don’t regret any of them. From a rugby point of view they were all the right ones.

“I’m thankful to all the coaches for giving me the chance to show what I can do. And I’m thrilled to still be on that journey now.”

England recognition first came at the end of last season when Burrell toured Argentina with a Lancaster squad weakened by call-ups to the British and Irish Lions.

He was again in the 35 for the autumn internationals but on each occasion sent home on a Tuesday night before the Saturday game when Lancaster whittled down his squad to 23.

“I had to keep my head down and stay positive,” he said. “Even at the end of the week I was going back to Northampton and we were in the middle of a very tough part of the season, so I couldn’t get too hung up about missing out on the team selection.

“Before I would leave, Stuart would pull me to one side and have a good chat with me, tell me to keep doing what I’m doing and not to get too disheartened, just go away and continue to show to him and the coaches why they should keep me in the picture.”

To help advance his claims he has drawn on some of his old league knowledge in the past 12 months, working on core skill-sets to give his game more range.

“People thought I was just a big powerful centre with nothing more to offer,” said Burrell, who will happily fill the outside centre role in the Six Nations and beyond.

“But I can kick, pass a ball well and it’s something I wanted to express this season and hopefully that has helped me get the recognition. This time I’m not going into camp to make up the numbers. I’m chomping at the bit to play. I need to prove they were right to give me the opportunity.”

And judging on Lancaster’s comments, that will come in Paris in the No 13 shirt.

But however, or whenever it happens, few could deny Burrell has not earned it.

nick.westby@ypn.co.uk