Different stories, same goal: inside Sam Burgess and Matt Peet’s road to potential Wembley ‘classic’

Alex Spink

One has a playing CV as long as his arm, friends in Hollywood and a fame that extends far beyond the borders of rugby league.

The other did not play professionally and worked part-time as a fruit picker and in special needs to fund his journey through the coaching ranks.

Sam Burgess and Matt Peet chose completely different career paths yet each has led to Wembley for Saturday’s Challenge Cup Final between Warrington and Wigan.

Wire boss Burgess captained his country, became a pal of Russell Crowe, won an NRL Grand Final with a cheekbone broken in the very first tackle and switched codes to play in a union World Cup.

Peet, his Wigan counterpart, got himself a university degree, enjoys poetry, extols the virtues of meditation and yoga and admits: “I’m more obsessed with coaching than I am with rugby league.”

One has lived his life in the spotlight, the other prefers to stay out of the glare. Yet here the pair are, united by a common goal on an occasion guaranteed to be emotionally charged following the cruel, early passing of league legend Rob Burrow.

“I’ve got a lot of respect for Sam but I don’t think it’s about me and him,” says Peet, characteristically quick to deflect attention away from himself.

“That’s not something that comes to mind. Sam is doing a great job but I don’t think he’ll be worried about coming up against me. And my motivation is my players and my team.”

It is a nice try, but the comparisons and contrasts are too obvious to ignore, a splendid sub plot to what has the makings of an epic final.

“What a match-up this is,” agrees cross-code legend and former Man of Steel winner Jonathan Davies. “Sam a leader of men, cut from the same cloth as Andy Farrell, a man I have huge respect for.

“Matty, straight-faced, playing everything down. Worked his way up from within, done an amazing job. It could be a classic.”

Burgess, four months into his first job as a head coach, has already had a transformative effect on Warrington.

Yet 13 miles to the north, Peet has won the Grand Final, Challenge Cup, League Leaders’ Shield and World Club Challenge. All inside three years.

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“Wigan always have a sprinkling of superstars and a hard core of local kids,” says Davies. “They are tough men. Honest to God, it’s unbelievable how tough these kids are coming through. And they all play for Matty.”

Paul Grayson, ex-England union star turned Wigan kicking coach, says Peet is imbued with the same selfless qualities he found in the other code in Shaun Edwards, Andy and Owen Farrell.

“For all four it’s never about them, it’s about the collective,” he says. “These Wigan men understand it’s about the club, the town, about creating an environment where people can flourish.

“It’s about their respect to the connection to the past and learning lessons from it and dealing with the pressure of having such a storied history.

“The wheels keep turning, day by day. Generations change, people come and go but right through the heart of it is an honesty and integrity which comes from a working class place with a sport which is played by the working class for the working class.”

Peet’s broad outlook on life was perfectly summed up in February when the mother of Liam Marshall passed away in the week of the World Club Challenge and the head coach took the whole squad to the funeral.

After the service, according to Sky Sports presenter Brian Carney, Peet gathered his team together.

“Boys,” he said. “We have got a big week ahead of us but we will do nothing this week that will match what we have done for a team-mate of ours”.

Four months on, talking exclusively to Love Rugby League, he explains: “We are all very competitive, all of us want to do the best for our club. But at times there are bigger, more important things.

“I’m thinking now of Rob [Burrow]. His illness certainly put a lot of things in perspective in the sport. Our hearts go out to Rob’s family and the MND community.”

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Peet reveals that he was brought up “to try and help people out where I can”, which goes a long way to explaining his deep love of coaching.

“From the start I was passionate about it, though I never saw it as a career path,” he says. “It was just something I enjoyed doing and wanted to do well.

“You have to work on relationships. It’s trust, isn’t it. Trust has to be developed, earned and nurtured. All I’ve tried to do is turn up each day and help my players get a bit better, while trying to be a bit better myself.”

He adds that he was inspired growing up by coaches and teachers who made a positive impact on him. Now he wants to do the same for others.

“Wigan has this knack of producing good rugby players and good rugby people,” he says. “People who give up their time for not much.

“That’s how I started. A professional career in coaching was not even a consideration. I never thought I’d one day be coaching at first team level. It was just something I enjoyed and wanted to do well.”

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