Sam Burgess delighted to have blazed a trail in the States

Leading the way: England's Sam Burgess in Denver. Picture: SWPIX
Leading the way: England's Sam Burgess in Denver. Picture: SWPIX
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defiant Sam Burgess says the Denver experiment has only strengthened England’s belief that rugby league can eventually conquer the States.

The former Bradford Bulls star helped England defeat New Zealand 36-18 in their historic Test match at Mile High Stadium.

It went ahead despite initial opposition from several NRL clubs in Australia who were worried about player welfare given the travel involved mid-season and being played at such altitude.

However, all England’s NRL-based players, including South Sydney’s Burgess, St George Illawarra duo James Graham and Gareth Widdop plus Canberra Raiders’ Elliott Whitehead, signed a statement beforehand publicly backing the initiative and it eventually went ahead.

With the 2025 World Cup to be staged in America, and England coach Wayne Bennett a huge advocate of international rugby league, they have acted as pioneers in the bid to build the sport over there.

A crowd of almost 20,000 watched what proved an absorbing Test match and that has certainly pleased organisers.

You ask all the players, they all enjoyed it. All the Kiwis enjoyed it and then we saw a good game of football so, overall, I think it is a success.

Sam Burgess

Furthermore, Rugby League International Federation chief executive Nigel Wood said the game was “as spectacular as it was informative” and “rugby league’s been presented to one of the greatest sporting nations in the world and allowed them to start to build a relationship with it”.

Burgess, who captained his country in last year’s World Cup final, admitted: “We’ll continue with the same stance.

“I think as players we have seen how valuable it is. I think the Kiwis got a bit out of it as well and I do think it’s something that works well.

“Give it a few more years and it will pick up some momentum and see how we go.

“The whole experience over the week we’ve been here has been fantastic.

“You ask all the players, they all enjoyed it. All the Kiwis enjoyed it and then we saw a good game of football so, overall, I think it is a success.”

The two nations have agreed in principle to return to America and stage a further mid-season Tests in both 2019 and 2020.

However, some NRL clubs – should they wish to complain again – may now have further weight to their arguments against the concept.

It emerged New Zealand saw their scheduled flight home cancelled due to an electrical storm in Colorado, with many players, then, crucially expected to lose another day’s preparation ahead of this weekend’s NRL fixtures.

Clearly, that is just unfortunate and no-one’s fault as such but it could make NRL clubs think again about releasing their players in 2019.

Hopefully, that will not be the case given the clear need to grow the international sport.

Indeed, Bennett made a pertinent point afterwards when he said: “If we don’t have a global product, we’re not going to have a product in 20 years.

“Sport’s changing that quickly.”

He is defiant in his belief England must return to Denver in 2019 and Kiwis coach Michael Maguire is in full support.

England’s Australia-based players caught an earlier flight so encountered no such problems.

With regards their play, it was arguably one of England’s finest performances in recent years as they battled back from 12-0 down to prove too strong and clinical for their opponents.

But Yorkshireman Burgess, 29, insisted: “We’re not getting carried away. The conditions were different today so it probably fitted us with a bit of different rugby; we probably saw a few more opportunities than we would do in a normal Test match.

“But we had to capitalise and take the opportunity when they came so that’s a good sign.

“The game was tough, the first 20 minutes especially. I was feeling it then before I eventually got my second wind.

“But I thought we hung in there and showed some resilience so overall it was a good week for us.

“We just have to keep growing now. We’ll bank what we can get better at and then our next match is France at the end of the year.

“So, we’ll look forward to that one before facing the Kiwis in those three Tests back in England during the autumn.”