In depth: Sam Burgess – the superstar that rugby league needed

Throughout the history of any sport really there comes along a player who defies any form of logic, sets an unprecedented new standard and becomes this generational talent that creates memories that will be remembered in years to come.

Let’s take football for instance you have the elite duo of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo making thier own history or tennis with the likes of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal or even NBA basketball with the epic moments that the great Michael Jordan was able to create through the 1980s and 1990s. Each athlete widely considered a superstar in their own discipline.

If we then took a look at rugby league then we have plenty of argument to suggest that that player was Sam Burgess. Now, this is in no way to suggest that Burgess is considered as this highly regarded world superstar with millions upon millions in the bank and well known to an extremely high proportion but for the close knit realms of rugby league and for many fans around it is easy to suggest he was exactly that superstar talent.

However, very recently ‘Slammin Sam’ sadly announced his early retirement from the game due to complicated shoulder problems so in tribute to the man himself we fittingly take an in depth look into one of rugby league’s modern era greats.

Born out Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, rugby league was in Burgess’ blood as it would stem from his late father, Mark, a former player in his own right who turned out for the likes of Rochdale, Dewsbury and Hunslet throughout his career.

The elder Burgess brother’s path to rugby league stardom began with junior sides Hunslet parkside and Deswbury before going on to make his professional debut for Bradford Bulls during the 2006 Super League season against Leeds. Despite featuring sporadically that year, the talent was already undeniable and in the end was awarded the Senior Academy Player of the Year for his efforts that season.

By 2007, he was fully fledged starter for the Bulls making 26 appearances alongside scoring two tries as the West Yorkshire side finished third.

The Bulls may have lost in the elimination play-offs to Wigan that year but another opportunity to make his mark on the big stage came knocking as even though he was one year in as a regular starter, an 18-year-old Burgess was handed the distinctive honour of a Great Britain call up. The youngster showed exactly what he was made of and announced himself to New Zealand and the rugby league world fully with a debut try and a bone crunching hit on the Kiwi’s Fuifui Moimoi. 

After two more standout seasons with the Bulls, Burgess had become one of the most exciting talents in Super League and so much so he caught the eye of the NRL and more specifically that of South Sydney Rabbitohs. By the end of 2009, the tenacious forward signed for the Bunnies in a deal that would take effect from the 2010 season. 

For many British NRL imports the pace and physicality of the league can sometimes be hard for players to cope with, but that never seemed like the case for Burgess who continued to make his stamp on the game through pure aggression, high octane defence and just sheer will and determination. Even though he missed nearly a season of action in 2011, he was still able to be a constant threat and make consistent appearances before and after. 

The 2014 NRL season will undoubtedly remain as one of the standout memories of Burgess’ career and one that stood as a true testament to the kind of player he was and what kind of impact he was able to make. Before the start of the season, Souths had not won a league honour since the days of Eric Simms in the early 1970s but that was all set to change with Burgess at the loose forward spot putting forth one of his best and most noteworthy seasons to date. In 26 appearances he scored 10 tries, while proving to be nothing but integral in Souths’ run to the Grand Final. However, it would be a final that was set to become one of the most talked about highlights of the superstar forward’s career. 

The Rabbitohs faced Canterbury in NRL’s premier event in what became Burgess’ finest hour on a rugby field as right from the get go he showed how fired up he was with a fearless run right from the start, taking a huge hit from the Bulldogs defenders that included compatriot James Graham. The brutal hit was certainly a heart in the mouth moment as he instantly clutched his face in what turned out to be a fractured cheekbone. However, forever the warrior he gritted his teeth despite protests and stayed out on the pitch, in turn putting together one of the most influential and  determined displays in recent memory as Souths claimed their first title since 1971, with the lock claiming the Clive Churchill Medal for an epic man of the match performance. All in all a display that will go down in rugby league folklore. 

After claiming his first domestic title, the enfrocer decided to take his talents cross code to Union, playing for Bath and then even going on to appear for England. But, due to positional issues and controversy surrounding his inclusion in the 2015 World Cup squad, it proved be a questionable call. But, for many Burgess was seen as a unnecessary scapegoat for England’s poor display in the tournament.

So after a year away, Burgess made a heroes return to South Sydney in a deal that saw him become the highest paid rugby league player of all time and in the top three of both codes. He was able to pick up right where he left off and continued to be imperative to the Rabbitohs’ cause each year. During the 2019 season, Burgess would go on to receive club captaincy after the retirement of Greg Inglis before leading his side to the NRL semi finals for a second consecutive year. 

Over his career, shoulder issues had been a problem and again in 2019 he required surgery before suffering from complications with infection afterwards. In the end, it looked to prove too much as he announced his retirement from rugby league and in turn the sport lost one of its best superstars of the last 15 years. Altogether, he made 270 first team appearances in both Super League and the NRL and scored an accumulative 61 tries, with his haul down under alone making him one of the highest points scoring props in the NRL era.

Overall, it is just goes to show the pressure a sport such as this one can put on the body on even the most finest tuned of athletes and clearly no man is indestructible even when it seemed like Burgess was that from time to time. As his brother Tom stated, Sam can easily be regarded as a ‘trailblazer’ of the game. A groundbreaking player who put his body on the line every time he stepped out onto the field whether it be a barnstorming run from a kick off or a cruncher of a tackle on his opposition there always seemed to be a moment that made you think this guy is fearless. After coming onto the scene with Bradford, to making his debut for Great Britain at just 18 to then breaking the mould for British exports in Australian rugby league, the Yorkshireman’s rugby league journey has been one of true inspiration.

The 30-year-old may not be the most accomplished player in terms of silverware but it is what he was able to bring to the game around that and be a superstar of the game. He may have been a player from time to time who might was quite familiar with the disciplinary board but this is exactly what made him this hard not to love rogue. If there was one word that describes Burgess as a player then that was tough just plain and simple as whenever he was on the field there was nobody more so. A characteristic of his that was unmatched. A modern day gladiator and the rugby league field was his coliseum, a special talent and one that will be hard to replicate so soon.

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About Zach Holland 296 Articles
Love Rugby League writer.

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