Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 18 June 2019

Apollo Perelini: Major differences between codes make Sam Burgess a Rugby World Cup gamble

UAE Shaheen coach Apollo Perelini gives The National his thoughts ahead of the Rugby World Cup.
Sam Burgess has not really been challenged yet. When he played against France, on debut in the opening warm up match last month, there was no Mathieu Bastareaud or Wesley Fofana. He did not play against their best backline. Glyn Kirk / AFP
Sam Burgess has not really been challenged yet. When he played against France, on debut in the opening warm up match last month, there was no Mathieu Bastareaud or Wesley Fofana. He did not play against their best backline. Glyn Kirk / AFP

Why would Sam Burgess, or anyone who has played rugby league to such a remarkable standard for that matter, find crossing over to union difficult? There are some clear reasons as to why.

The simplest way to describe it is to say that I could sit and explain the rules of league to someone who has never watched either code, get them to watch one game and they would understand it straight away.

If I was to sit with them and explain the rules to union, on the other hand, they would be completely lost. There are so many intricacies and rules.

The breakdown, which is the part of the game just after the tackle is made, is still a lottery, even for people who have played all their lives.

I do not know how many times I have seen an international player – an All Black, an Englishman, a South African – come up from the bottom of a ruck and question: “What have I just done?”

The commentators are frequently unsure, too. So if the player and the commentators are not sure, what must the spectators be thinking? They must have absolutely no idea.

So for a league convert going over to union, it is like trying to learn Chinese in one day. There is so much to it.

Look at England centre Burgess. He played in the pack in rugby league. He would not have made it in the backs in league. No chance. League backs are electrifying. They are dynamic and skilful.

Then he moves to union, and he is a back because he would struggle in the forwards. There are too many responsibilities for a loose forward, which is where he played for most of the domestic season at his club side Bath.

You could write a book on all the responsibilities a loose forward has, there is so much to it.

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Every time he gets to a ruck, Burgess would be guessing what he has to do. There are so many options available to him, and he has to pick the correct one.

People such as the All Blacks captain Richie McCaw and Australia’s David Pocock, guys who have been playing there all their lives, will have sussed out exactly what they are doing 10 metres out from getting to a breakdown. As they approach, they are able to adjust because their anticipation is so quick.

When I watch Burgess approach a ruck now, he hesitates. He slows down, and then goes in. He has to think. Others react instinctively. He could still make a difference for England at the Rugby World Cup. However, he has not really been challenged yet. When he played against France, on debut in the opening warm up match last month, there was no Mathieu Bastareaud or Wesley Fofana. He did not play against their best backline.

In the group stage, he is going to come up against some very experienced back lines from Australia and Wales, when he has not been tested yet.

It is not fair on him, though. It is a massive challenge for him and a massive gamble for Stuart Lancaster, England’s coach. Coaches go in with a certain mindset and gameplan. They select the players for that, and we do not know what their plan is. Therefore, we cannot judge them at this stage.

But I still believe England would have been well served opting for Kyle Eastmond. Kyle, whom I first spotted as a 14 year old and recommended to my old Super League side St Helens, was Jonathan Joseph’s centre-partner for Bath – not Burgess.

They have an understanding playing together, which is vital. Look at the All Blacks midfield. Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith play together at Hurricanes and they work together. That is key.

They know each other inside out and they know which is their roles and responsibilities. Eastmond and Joseph have that playing together for Bath, so you would think it would be the same with England.

one of that is Burgess’ fault, of course. He has been selected and is trying his best.

He is going to go out there and give it 130 per cent because that is the kind of guy he is, and I hope he is a success.

Rugby league converts have not always made a success of the switch to the 15-man code. Here we select some of the best and worst to have made the move.

TOPS

Jason Robinson (England)

“Billy Whizz” was on the losing side against Australia in league’s World Cup final with England in 1995. He avenged that with a try in 2003’s union final, a 20-17 England win.

Sonny Bill Williams (New Zealand)

Uniquely, he has had two separate attempts at each code. He made his name in league, his fortune in union with Toulon, then criss-crossed between the two again. Sevens will be next.

Lote Tuqiri (Australia)

Part of an all-convert back three when Australia played the 2003 union final, alongside Wendell Sailor and Mat Rogers. He scored the try for the defeated Wallabies.

Apollo Perelini (Samoa)

The kids he coaches in Dubai might be too young to know their rugby teacher was once one of the most feared players in both formats of the game. He was known as “The Terminator”.

Scott Gibbs (Wales)

The besuited TV pundit seems warm and friendly behind the analyst’s desk at OSN. It is a far cry from his playing days in league and union, when he was a back-line powerhouse.

FLOPS

Andy Farrell (England)

One of league’s most respected players, his big-money switch to Saracens and England attracted Sam Burgess-like fanfare. He never scaled the same heights, though.

Benji Marshall (New Zealand)

A maverick talent who was one of the most watchable players in either code while making his name in league. His switch to Auckland’s Super Rugby side was ill-fated.

Henry Paul (New Zealand/England)

A flop at XVs, judged on his Test career. However, Paul, who was a league master with Wigan, enjoyed a fine career in union’s sevens format and was a winner here in Dubai.

Iestyn Harris (Wales)

Having won league’s Man of Steel award, he made a £1.5 million (Dh8.5m) switch to union in Wales. Despite winning 25 caps, he never really settled and headed back to what he knew best.

Joel Tomkins (England)

Followed former league players such as Andy Farrell and Chris Ashton to Saracens and England. He seemed to adapt well but headed straight back to league after winning three union caps.

As told to Paul Radley. Perelini played for Western Samoa at the 1991 Rugby World Cup. He runs the Apollo Perelini Skills Academy in Dubai.

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Updated: September 14, 2015 04:00 AM

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