PAUL DEACON played alongside a 17-year-old Sam Burgess when he debuted with Bradford Bulls –and later coached the Yorkshireman as he turned into the greatest rugby league player on the planet.
It is with some conviction, then, that the former Great Britain scrum-half believes Burgess – despite such widespread criticism and this being only his third Test – could be man-of-the-match for England in their important Rugby World Cup Pool A game with Wales at Twickenham tomorrow night.
Some critics are incredulous that head coach Stuart Lancaster has selected the 26-year-old from the off for such a gargantuan contest, having only switched codes 10 months ago and appearing just twice off the bench at this level.
But Deacon, who won every honour in rugby league with Bradford and recently became backs coach at Sale Sharks, does not comprehend the fuss after Burgess was parachuted in for the injured Jonathan Joseph.
“I can’t understand all these pundits saying this is the biggest gamble Lancaster has ever made,” he told The Yorkshire Post.
“Sam was picked in the original 31-man squad and they now have an injury to one centre so it’s a straight choice between him and Henry Slade for the role.
“For me, knowing Sam like I do and even though I’m new to the sport, I’d have picked him from the start against Fiji last week, too.
“The thing about Sam is the bigger the occasion, the bigger the stage, the better he plays.
“I’ll never forget the 2013 World Cup semi-final against New Zealand at Wembley. I will always remember that for what Sam did that day. He was absolutely outstanding. Everything pure class.
“Last year, too, in the NRL Grand Final, when it really mattered, and despite those injuries he received in the first seconds, he came out and delivered.
“He was man of the match in both – two of the biggest games you could ever play – and it wouldn’t surprise me if he was against Wales on Saturday.
“It’s going to be a tough game – England v Wales is massive – but I am sure he will put in a really, really strong performance. I’m excited to watch him.”
Burgess certainly has pedigree when it matters most.
Who can forget his Great Britain debut when, aged just 18, he started in the front-row and floored New Zealand juggernaut Fuifui Moimoi with a rattling hit?
Deacon, then England’s assistant coach, refers to Burgess’s 2013 display against the Kiwis at Wembley – ultimately in defeat – which former Great Britain captain Jamie Peacock rated the best by any Englishman in 20 years.
Next, of course, came the Dewsbury-born player’s heroics 12 months ago when he fractured his eye socket and cheekbone in the opening seconds against Canterbury but still played the entire 80 minutes for South Sydney and inspired them to their first Grand Final win in 43 years.
Burgess subsequently became the first Englishman to win international rugby league’s player of the year before joining Bath and starting a new career in union.
For Deacon, however, the quality of a player he captained for three years at Odsal, was obvious from an early age.
“I knew from first meeting Sam that he was something special. Straight away I realised he was a lot more mature than the rest of his peers and had so much talent.
“People like him only come along every four or five years or so – people you instantly know are going to be successful. I was in the Bradford side when he made his debut against Leeds Rhinos at Headingley in 2006 and he handled that so well especially in his position as prop but it just reiterated what I already knew.
“He put me through some holes with Bradford, too – and that takes some doing!
“He has all the skills for such a big bloke; strong, athletic but with great footwork and vision and he can kick the ball as well.”
Deacon recalls Burgess being his father Mark’s main carer at their Liversedge home as he battled the debilitating motor neurone disease before his death in 2007.
“I can’t begin to understand how hard that must have been for Sam and I’m sure he had to grow up very quickly,” he said.
“I don’t know if that is why he has turned out the way he has or he’d have done so anyway but if you talk to anyone who knows Sam you won’t find anyone having a bad word to say about him.
“I played with Shonny (Hape) and Les (Vainikolo) who were world-class players in their own right and both made a decent fist of it (in union after leaving Bulls).
“But there was just a different edge about Sam. I do think he is special. He’s proved that already and, for me, doesn’t have to do so on Saturday. As soon as he switched codes I knew he’d be a success.”