Sam Burgess shakes things up for England
Tom Hamilton
August 15, 2015
Sam Burgess of England tackles Alexandre Dumoulin of France © Getty Images

It took approximately two minutes for Sam Burgess to make his presence felt on the French opposition. Dimitri Szarzewski took a static ball and the rugby league convert came out of the England line to give him the most violent of bear hugs; the hooker's floppy hair jolted in alarm. Twickenham cheered in gladiatorial approval. You imagine his great friend Russell Crowe would have approved.

Rarely has there been a debut amid such scrutiny. Other than scoring a hat-trick, carrying the French pack over his shoulder and then managing to keep up with all the social media hashtags that adorn the Twickenham hoardings could Burgess appease the doubters. It was a fiercely tough mission and none of it was his own doing.

The reality is that he has a handful of minutes in the centres at Aviva Premiership level; his club education is born in the back-row. But to the unwitting Twickenham patron, he did not look out of place against France.

The bulk of his work was done in defence, he finished with 12 tackles and alongside his hit on Szarzewski, he vaporised French centre Dumoulin, who is hardly diminutive. He played his role in the build up to Anthony Watson's second try - a score born from the perfectly manicured turf at Pennyhill Park - and largely stood at outside centre in attack.

In defence his role in the breakdown was on the fringes but the blot on his copybook was the sin-bin. The yellow card for pulling back Morgan Parra following a quick-tap penalty was stupid - he admitted to the BBC post-match "it was just instinct ... it's a big learning curve and something I won't do again"- but you feel there was enough intrigue about him to warrant giving him another go.

With England it is less about the player's individual talents and more about how he fits into the system. Stuart Lancaster favours the marrying of a ball-player with a ball-carrier. It was the beast of Burgess to the beauty of Henry Slade; the latter was England's standout debutant.

"I thought he was good," Lancaster said post-match of Burgess. "He would have been disappointed to get sin-binned but I thought his decision making on when to pass and when to carry was good and his defensive physicality was good. He translated what he did in training into the game which is a hard thing to do on his first cap but he did well."

During the week Slade said Burgess had an "aura" about him, but sometimes that is not enough to carry you through at international level. Earlier in the day, another inside centre was playing Test rugby for the All Blacks against Australia. Ma'a Nonu carried well, defended with aplomb and grabbed two tries. It was job done; that is the benchmark for a physical Test inside centre.

There was enough about Burgess to warrant giving him another go. If England are seriously considering him for a spot in the final 31-man squad then they need to give him a run in some capacity against France next weekend but that would mean juggling him alongside the trio who played no part in Saturday's game - Jonathan Joseph, Brad Barritt and Luther Burrell - and Billy Twelvetrees who had 15 minutes.

It was an intriguing experiment; Burgess can do little more. The jury is still out and it is now up to Lancaster to decide whether to throw him to the lions or give him another shot.

© Tom Hamilton

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