THEY may not be the favourites, but Leeds Rhinos are in the race to bring superstar Sam Burgess back to rugby league, chief executive Gary Hetherington has confirmed.
Burgess’s departure from rugby union seems inevitable after he was heavily criticised for his performances during the recent World Cup and then given time off from his club Bath following England’s calamitous early exit from the tournament.
The 26-year-old is back in training ahead of Bath’s Premiership game with London Irish and coach Mike Ford says he expects the player to see out the remaining two years of his contract.
But Leeds are one of a few clubs on either side of the world with space in their budget and squad for a high-profile recruit and Burgess would be an ideal signing as they face up to life without retired club legends Kevin Sinfield, Jamie Peacock and Kylie Leuluai.
“We have made it known to Bath that should he be looking to come back to rugby league, we would be interested in looking at that possibility,” Hetherington stated.
“Sam is aware of that as well. I think it would be a terrific boost for the Super League competition if any club could bring him into Super League. We have got a watching brief on it.”
But Hetherington insisted he believes a return to his former club South Sydney is the most likely outcome.
“I was spotted speaking with Sam at the (England v) France game last month and people have put two and two together,” said Hetherington. “He was there, I was there and we ended up chatting. I didn’t know he was going to be there.
“My information, not necessarily from Sam, is that when Souths did a deal with Bath, there was a clause that should he return to rugby league, Souths would have first option on him.”
Burgess joined Souths from Bradford Bulls in 2010 and younger brothers Thomas and George remain on the books there.
The NRL have told Souths a transfer fee paid to Bath for Burgess would not count on their salary cap.
However, the Australian outfit would still need to find a way to fit a high-earner into their squad and budget for 2016. Leeds are in a healthy position financially after winning the Challenge Cup, League Leaders’ Shield and Super League Grand Final this year.
They have space in their squad and under the marquee player ruling, Burgess would only take up £175,000 of Leeds’s salary cap.
So, even if Burgess’s long-term future is back at South Sydney – where he won an NRL Grand Final in his last appearance – there could be an option for Rhinos to sign him on a one-year deal.
Leeds have what Hetherington described as a “pretty good relationship” with Souths, who are owned by actor Russell Crowe.
“I have been consistent in saying it is unlikely Leeds Rhinos would take advantage of the marquee player ruling,” said Hetherington. “It would have to be something exceptional, but Sam Burgess falls into the exceptional bracket. That’s the type of player it would need to be to arouse our interest.”
Bath paid South Sydney £500,000 for Burgess, but Hetherington said a transfer fee is “within our capabilities”.
Bath have been linked with Leeds’s England centre and player-of-the-year Kallum Watkins, possibly as part of a swap deal.
But Hetherington stressed: “Our players consistently get linked with other clubs. Our policy is our players are not for sale. If they are out of contract that is a different matter, but while players are in contract and are an integral part of our team and future, we are not interested in offers for them.”
Ford, who played league for Castleford and had a spell as player-coach at Bramley, says he is unaware of interest from Leeds.