ONE of the most recent converts from rugby league to union has issued a word of warning to the man many believe has the potential to be the greatest cross-code player of all time.
Joel Tomkins, who has returned to the 13-man game and will line up in the Super League Grand Final for Wigan tonight, says Sam Burgess faces a tough challenge getting up to speed in the 15-man version.
Burgess’s big-money switch to Premiership side Bath sets the stage for him to chase selection for Rugby World Cup 2015 with Stuart Lancaster’s England squad.
The talismanic loose-forward was earmarked to play some part in next month’s Autumn Internationals, but that is now off the cards with his arrival in the West Country delayed after he suffered a broken cheekbone and fractured eye socket in an incredible man-of-the-match display during Sunday’s Australian NRL Grand Final win.
He will have to wait for the Six Nations after his fairy-tale send-off with South Sydney in league.
Burgess will be in Bath colours hopefully before Christmas and although there is much to learn in union, Tomkins believes if anyone can do it in time for next September’s World Cup, the 25-year-old from Dewsbury is the man to accomplish that.
“I think it’s going to be a big ask for him to get into the World Cup squad in 2015, but if there’s any RL player who can do it, I’d pick him,” said Tomkins.
“He’s unbelievable as we saw at the weekend with Souths.”
Based on his own experiences, Tomkins knows first-hand how difficult the transition from league to union can be, particularly when a player is fast-tracked as Burgess is being.
Tomkins switched codes at the end of the 2011 Super League season when Saracens saw his potential as a union centre. It took him two years to break into the England team, playing three times in last November’s series with the southern hemisphere heavyweights.
“It takes a long time to adjust; I probably never felt 100 per cent confident compared to playing league,” said Tomkins.
“Going over and being thrown straight into international RU is a tough ask, and it’s a lot harder to get to the point where you feel comfortable doing that.
“I think it will take Sam time to get used to it.”
Mike Ford, the Bath director of rugby, has raised the possibility of Burgess eventually playing in the back-row, but Tomkins believes his skills are best saved for the creative role in the centres.
“He’ll play 12, I think, which is slightly different to what I played, I was a 13,” continued Tomkins, who returned to league three months ago and finds himself back in a Grand Final tonight at Old Trafford.
“There will be a lot of technical aspects which he’ll have to work really hard on, and, until you’re in a game situation, it’s pretty tough to grasp them.
“It’s a short time-frame for him to work his way into the England squad, but if I was a betting man I’d say he could well make it.
“Playing for England was the highlight for me in my time in union; that was a massive goal of mine and I’m really thankful for that opportunity.
“We managed to beat Australia – something I haven’t done over here, but, hopefully, I can manage that this winter.
“It was a fantastic experience to play at Twickenham in front of 80,000 people, that was a huge highlight.
“I had a great time doing something different for a few years, which is the reason why I went and did it. However, my heart is in rugby league and it feels like I’ve come home now. It’s a bit of a fairytale being in the final this weekend.”
Bath chief Ford has told Burgess to stay in Sydney as long as he needs while recuperating from the facial surgery sustained in the 30-6 weekend victory over Canterbury Bulldogs.
Ford believes Burgess’s setback, which could leave him out of action for six weeks, will allow the star signing breathing space to acclimatise to his new challenge in union.
Hailing Burgess’s mental tenacity to play the entire Grand Final despite suffering the serious injury in the opening clash, Ford said Bath’s new recruit has the drive to succeed in his cross-code venture.
“I think it’s disrespectful to the players already excelling at Bath to even think that he’s going to walk into our first team,” said former England defence coach Ford. “He’s got to learn the game, and he’s got to get credit in the bank before he does that, before we even start talking about England.
“So it is a blessing, I think, mainly because of his body and his mind to keep him fresh, going into what will be the end part of the season which will be tough as well.
“He’s tough for sure: he’s been an Englishman in an Australian competition for starters, where they don’t like the Pommies, especially in rugby league.
“He’s excelled as a young kid, he’s only 25 now, and he went over when he was 19.
“So it’s not just the physical toughness he showed at the weekend, it’s probably the mental toughness, too.”