Weekend Interview: Sam Burgess - ‘Dad shaped us to be the men we are today’

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BREAKING off from our interview to show me footage of his 13-month-old daughter Poppy saying the word ‘boinka’, Sam Burgess instantly renders my previous question redundant.

I had asked the South Sydney forward, who captained England in last year’s World Cup final, how he had found parenthood and life as a dad.

Like many, he spoke of the delight, the joy, the sleepless nights, how the new arrival changes everything...

But he need not have bothered; this sums it all up.

“She’s learned ‘Boinka boinka’ and she’s so happy,” he says, clicking on the phone, his own beaming smile betraying the very fact he is, too.

“She’s learned that rabbits go boinga so she goes boinka, boinka…! She’s great.”

Sam Burgess in action for South Sydney (Picture: NRL)

Sam Burgess in action for South Sydney (Picture: NRL)

It is fitting, of course, as her dad plays for the Bunnies, but it emerges the little one really is not much of a sleeper.

Yorkshireman Burgess recollects: “I once went in a helicopter and the pilots said 99.9 per cent of babies sleep in there.

“But she didn’t. She was too busy all ‘What’s going on…?’!”

For Australia rugby league fans, they must be wondering what’s going on, too, given this invasion of British supporters.

In terms of what you learn, though, it’s that when you go through that severe adversity at a young age you do become more resilient. It puts a bit of perspective on when you go through some adversity in a football season!

Sam Burgess

Hull FC and Wigan Warriors have been swarming around New South Wales for the last fortnight ahead of today’s tour denouement – Hull facing St George-Illawarra and Wigan tackling Souths at Sydney’s ANZ Stadium.

Leeds Rhinos, meanwhile, descended on Melbourne last week ahead of yesterday’s World Club Challenge against the NRL premiers Storm.

Preparing for his eighth season with the Rabbitohs since joining from Bradford Bulls in a £200,000 deal – he briefly switched codes to join Bath and England for around 12 months leading into the 2015 World Cup – Burgess would love to be in action today but has been given a little extra preparation time by head coach Anthony Seibold.

“I haven’t actually played a Super League side since 2009; Bradford were at Hull FC and we won,” he recalled, referring to his last game for the club where he emerged as a bristling young forward always seemingly destined for stardom.

Sam Burgess is happier than ever at life in South Sydney (Picture: NRL)

Sam Burgess is happier than ever at life in South Sydney (Picture: NRL)

“But then St Helens lost to Catalans and we missed out on the eight.”

Days after celebrating his 21st birthday, having already been courted by Russell Crowe, the Hollywood movie actor and Souths co-owner, he flew out for a new adventure in Australia.

It did not take long for the popular player to earn hero status. Who can ever forget those famous images of him, battered face, fractured cheekbone – suffered in the first tackle of the game – being carried around the ANZ Stadium after his man-of-the-match display in the 2014 Grand Final against Canterbury Bulldogs?

Burgess’s sheer bravery had helped deliver the Redfearn club their first premiership in 43 years, his final – so, they thought – act before switching codes.

There is another milestone looming, now, though; Burgess turns 30 in December.

He winces at the prospect. For those who were there, it does not seem two minutes since he was 18, making his Great Britain debut and famously putting mountainous Kiwi Fuifui Moimoi firmly on his backside.

So, approaching 30, is he happy with his lot and how his life sits at this latest milestone?

He said: “Yes, of course I am. The other day (ex-Leeds, Bradford and Wakefield prop) Chris Feather, my best mate who’s doing really well here with a successful gym, ran a seminar.

“People flew in from all over the world to come to it at his gym. He asked me to speak at this seminar. It’s the first time I’ve ever stood up and done a 50-minute block speech.

“But it did make me sit back and reflect a bit on my career which I don’t think you normally do until you finish. But I had to put a presentation together and called it ‘My Journey: Becoming an athlete.’

“I went right back to my journey being a kid, becoming an athlete, sustaining it and I did reflect a bit on my career. I’d forgotten how long I’d actually been playing first team. This is my 13th season. I’ve no regrets in my career. I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve done and now, I guess, I’ve found real peace in finding a great home, married a beautiful wife Phoebe, have a beautiful daughter, the club’s going in a good direction again and I’m really happy with where things are at. I’m the luckiest man alive really. That’s what I think; I’m really fortunate.”

Burgess can not actually remember what he was doing on his 18th birthday.

“I was just enjoying everything that was happening,” he said.

“Obviously I’d had a tough time with dad. It was a weird time. I didn’t know where I wanted to go. I knew I wanted to do something big. I wanted to test myself.

“And then losing dad, after a couple of years, I just thought right I’m going, I wanted to get out from where I grew up, get out of my house where I lived and I moved here.

“But I’ve always been super happy, always had a pretty positive outlook on things. Obviously losing dad is as hard as it gets and I thought we dealt with that strongly as a family. I’m really proud of how we did.”

Mark Burgess, a former professional player, too, died from Motor Neurone Disease in 2007 aged just 45.

Sam was just 18 at the time and was the main carer for his father at their home in Liversedge as the debilitating condition took its cruel grip, carrying him up the stairs every night and back down in the morning.

Twins George and Tom – now South Sydney and England props – were just 14 while elder brother Luke, then of Leeds, was 19.

On that experience, Burgess admitted: “It shapes you completely. I draw heaps from that. I never feel sorry for myself.

“Obviously I’m gutted that my dad is not around to see what my brothers have done, to see all our kids – George has a young boy, Luke has a young girl – not be at our wedding, mine and George’s.

“Certainly there is a hint of sadness with that but also then I’m so proud of everything we learned from our dad; it’s shaped us to be the men we are today. I take a lot of comfort in that but certainly we do miss him.

“In terms of what you learn, though, it’s that when you go through that severe adversity at a young age you do become more resilient. It puts a bit of perspective on when you go through some adversity in a football season! It makes it a little easier to deal with. You just grow up a little quicker.”

If still in any doubt, though, he just needs to tap that video play button again and let his little girl say ‘boinka, boinka.’

Burgess on the one that got away...

SAM BURGESS described his time with England’s World Cup squad as the greatest eight weeks of his career.

Ultimately, though, it ended in a 6-0 final defeat against Australia after the shaken Kangaroos had looked in real trouble. Was, then, it not a real chance missed to end 46 years of hurt?

“Of course it was an opportunity missed,” conceded Burgess, who was captain in place of the injured Sean O’Loughlin.

“I do think we’ll kick ourselves for it. We played good enough footy to win but we just didn’t take our opportunities.

“We had two or three chances where we probably could have scored. We just didn’t make the right decision at the right time.

“We didn’t capitalise on our opportunities and they capitalised on the one or two they did get. Then that’s the game; it’s won in two or three moments. The moments that mattered they took. We didn’t.

“That’s the progression we now need as a team. What we’ve improved on is we give fewer moments to them and we create more for ourselves.

“Now it’s just about taking those moments. I said earlier I had no regrets in my career – but I would really have loved to have won that game.

“I think we’re closing the gap certainly and that’s why the international game is so important for us.”