Rugby World Cup: Burgess is capable of justifying his bold selection

England's Sam Burgess celebrates victory at the end of the World Cup warm up match at Twickenham Stadium, London. (Picture: David Davies/PA Wire)
England's Sam Burgess celebrates victory at the end of the World Cup warm up match at Twickenham Stadium, London. (Picture: David Davies/PA Wire)
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Three men born in the White Rose who graduated through the county’s rugby system will be looking to make their mark on England’s campaign, as Dave Craven reports.

EVER since its inception, the Rugby World Cup has often had Yorkshire representation deep in the England ranks.

England's Danny Care celebrates scoring a try during the RBS Six Nations match at Twickenham, London. (Picture: Tim Ireland/PA Wire).

England's Danny Care celebrates scoring a try during the RBS Six Nations match at Twickenham, London. (Picture: Tim Ireland/PA Wire).

Take the inaugural event in 1987, for example, when Wakefield winger Mike Harrison actually captained the Red Rose in Australia, scoring five tries during the tournament.

He had that legendary warrior Peter Winterbottom from Headingley, alongside him, not to mention dogged hooker Brian Moore, who learnt his trade with Halifax club Old Crossleyans.

The latter two featured again four years later – the last time England hosted the competition – in a squad managed by Geoff Cooke.

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Though a Cumbrian by birth, he has a massive connection to the Broad Acres given his long association with Bradford as both player and coach, and also given he coached Yorkshire from 1975-79.

Howden-born full-back Nick Beal pulled on the shirt in the 1999 World Cup as did another British Lion Tim Rodber from Richmond, while, in 2003, when England famously lifted the trophy for the first and still only time, Leeds-born Jason Robinson scored their opening try in the glorious victory over Australia in Sydney.

Mike Tindall, from Otley and a past pupil at Queen Elizabeth Grammar School in Wakefield, played outside centre that night when he was still famous for being a rugby player as well as his current standing of also being married to a royal.

Robinson came out of international retirement to help out old pal Brian Ashton in the 2007 event and duly captained England to another final where his career did finally come to an end in Paris by virtue of a dodgy shoulder.

Centre Jamie Noon, from Goole, was also involved in that tournament while four years ago Tindall was vice-captain on the ill-fated trip to New Zealand.

In the forthcoming World Cup, meanwhile, there are three White Rose brethren doing their bit for the Red Rose – Danny Care, Rob Webber and, most intriguingly, Sam Burgess – for a team led by former Leeds Carnegie chief Stuart Lancaster.

Burgess’ inclusion, of course, is perhaps the biggest talking point surrounding the England squad as the hosts prepare to kick-off the tournament against Fiji at Twickenham tomorrow night.

A superstar in the world of rugby league, the Dewsbury-born player, who made his name with Bradford Bulls before joining the glamour of Russell Crowe’s South Sydney, only actually started playing union 10 months ago.

He joined Bath having heroically defied a fractured cheekbone and eye socket in Souths’ NRL Grand Final win over Canterbury Bankstown last October, winning man-of-the-match acclaim despite suffering the injury in the opening tackle of the game.

Burgess – a big-hitting, hard-running prop/second-row in league – debuted for Bath off the bench as an inside centre against Harlequins at the end of November.

By the end of January, he was playing – quite poorly, as it turned out – for England Saxons versus the Irish Wolfhounds.

Nevertheless, Lancaster – who had always hoped Burgess could make the transition in time for the World Cup – named him in his Six Nations training squad and, though never featuring, the 26-year-old was slowly initiated into the workings of the England way.

At club level, he was switched to blindside flanker in April and, gaining the greater involvement he desired, flourished despite the obvious added complexities involved in that position for a league convert.

With his principal No12 Manu Tuilagi exiled from England’s World Cup plans in May having admitted assaulting two female police officers, Lancaster – knowing he would be missing Tuilagi’s’ physical presence – continued with his belief that Burgess would be considered as a centre, and only as a centre, for his country.

He made the 41-man summer World Cup training squad to America and, upon their return, survived the next round of culling, Lancaster having been impressed by not only what he did in practice but his leadership quality, too.

Burgess made his Test debut in August after just 17 games for Bath – it sounds incredulous but is a tortoise pace compared to Robinson whose bow came barely three months after starting with Sale – and he fared okay against France.

His midfield presence was clear to see judging by some of the bone-crunching tackles he performed while he showed some neat handling skills, too, though was yellow-carded.

No matter, for that solitary Test, alongside his performances in training, were enough to persuade Lancaster to ditch Luther Burrell – Burgess’ fellow Yorkshireman who had started all five Six Nations game in the spring – from his 31-man squad.

You can understand the concerns especially as the head coach had already jettisoned Kyle Eastmond – another rugby league convert whose form as the Premiership’s leading No12 with Bath had forced Burgess’ switch to the pack – and then the experienced Billy Twelvetrees to make way for him and another centre who had only just debuted against France: Henry Slade.

Admittedly, Brad Barritt is England’s safe hands as a starting 12 inside the brilliant Jonathan Joseph so it is not as if Lancaster is going all-in on his newcomers.

But Burgess is expected to make an impression from the bench.

In the last outing against Ireland – his second cap– there were moments of class mixed in with dubious errors.

That said, he is a man who thrives under pressure and has always delivered on the big stage, from making his Bradford debut as a 17-year-old at fierce rivals Leeds Rhinos to his brilliant display for England against New Zealand in the 2013 World Cup semi-final and that epic Souths effort last autumn. It is hoped Burgess will do what Sonny Bill Williams did after moving from rugby league to the All Blacks; offering that forward strength but subtle skill, too, in midfield.

For all his critics, there is no reason why he cannot achieve it and, cometh the hour, you sense he could deliver a match-winning performance.

Leeds-born Care, meanwhile, looks set to be looking in from the periphery unless there is a major loss of form or injury to England’s first-choice scrum-half Ben Youngs and his understudy Richard Wigglesworth.

The former Leeds Tykes 
No 9, who started out his career with Otley, looked to be Lancaster’s main man after bouncing back from being axed for drink-driving three years ago to star in the 2014 Six Nations.

He then started the autumn internationals against New Zealand and South Africa, his 50th cap, but paid the price as the team lost and was replaced in the starting line-up by Leicester’s Youngs.

However, Harlequins’ star Care – whose pace and individuality can be game-breaking assets – did not even make the bench for the rest of the autumn, and did so just once in this year’s Six Nations, meaning his fall from grace has, therefore, been quite alarming.

Pocklington-born hooker Webber, 29, was a colleague of Care’s in Leeds Tykes’ Academy, briefly playing in their first team before moving to Wasps and establishing himself there.

Now playing alongside Burgess at Bath, he has won 13 caps but, even with Dylan Hartley axed for disciplinary reasons, faces stiff competition from starter Tom Youngs and Saracens rookie Jamie George. He will appear from the bench on Friday against Fiji.