WITH the utmost respect, Sam Burgess is one of those annoying sorts who seems to be good at everything. You know the ones; can turn their hand to anything, effortlessly at ease regardless.
It was no surprise to hear about the England star smashing baseballs with some aplomb during the squad’s visit to Colorado Rockies this week.
He played a bit of cricket in his younger days. And likes his golf.
Burgess is in Denver, of course, for tonight’s mid-season Test against New Zealand. To many people, rugby league being played in America may seem like the sport attempting to break new ground. It is, in essence. But it has been there before at different times and in many guises.
The key now – especially given the 2025 World Cup will be played there – is to gain a lasting presence in the States and not just sporadic dabblings.
That is why England’s trip has been just about as much as what happens off the pitch as on it. They have needed to be visible; in a country with so many different sports – NFL, basketball and ice hockey as well as baseball – rugby league has so many competitors when it comes to even beginning to get its feet dug in anywhere.
The sight of England players taking in a Colorado match after a bit of slugging and also being toured around the Denver Broncos training facilities is a reminder of what they are up against.
However, reports on the ground say locals are genuinely interested in what this rugby league is all about and Denver Broncos’ cheerleaders have been used to spread the word with a smart advert talking about these “crazy, nuts” guys who have “no helmets or pads. And hit hard.”
The no helmets or pads aspect is something that really resonates with Americans who love their big collisions but are used to seeing NFL stars well-protected.
The wrestling promoter Mike Dimitro first tried introducing RL to the States in the 1950s when he assembled a group of American Football players to head off to Australia to play a sport they’d never even heard of – and, remarkably, enjoyed some success.
No firm roots were established, though, and it’s been the same ever since despite the best efforts of plenty, including current England coach Wayne Bennett.
A big believer in international rugby league, he was Queensland coach when one of their State of Origin matches went on the road to Long Beach, California in 1987.
Similarly, Bennett was in charge when Australia faced USA at Philadelphia in 2004 while it has been fascinating reading this week about how Brisbane Broncos – the club he helped form in 1988 – initially came about.
He was a regular visitor to Denver around that period and, having spent time at Denver Broncos with the Brisbane founders, it was decided they would model their new club on the NFL side.
There are plenty of links but, as Bennett has bemoaned, rugby league has always just “dipped its toe” into the US market without securing any longevity. Where Origin came and went in 1987, the same shouldn’t happen now.
England and New Zealand have agreed to play a mid-season Test in the States for three successive years, giving it a greater chance for people to buy-in.
Crucially, too, CBS Sports Network – such a significant broadcaster in North America – has agreed to show the game live across America and Canada.
By that token, then, tonight’s action needs to be gripping so let’s hope Burgess and co can bring their rugby league expertise and really deliver a show.