Sam Burgess’ appointment at Warrington Wolves is undoubtedly one of the biggest talking points heading into the new Super League season.
After bursting onto the international stage as a fresh-faced 18-year-old with a huge hit on New Zealand powerhouse Fuifui Moimoi, Burgess’ career as a player went from strength to strength.
After hanging up his boots for good in 2019, Burgess is now heading into his first head coaching role in the professional game with Super League side Warrington back in his English homeland.
Did his first head coaching gig come around earlier than he thought? Yes. Does that bother him at all? Not in the slightest.
“It’s happened really quick but I don’t mind it, I like being thrown in at the deep end,” Burgess told the media, including Love Rugby League, at Warrington’s media day.
“I really enjoy what we’ve done already, I’m looking forward to what’s coming – the ups and downs of the year.
“I know I’m 35 but from sort of 15 to 35 – those 20 years – there has been a lot crammed into those 20 years – the good, bad and the ugly. (I’ve been) right at the top, right at the bottom, in the middle for a long time, so I’ve got a lot of experience in terms of life experience and you learn a lot about yourself in some of those moments.
“I think I can share a lot of that, it’s helped me stay calm and present in a lot of stuff, I don’t ride things too high anymore and I don’t get too low with them. I’m pretty balanced with most things so all the experience I’ve gathered over that 20 years has shaped the way I coach.”
At the time of writing this article, Warrington have only had a couple of pre-season friendlies, with the Super League season starting next week. So of course, time will only tell whether Burgess’ appointment is the right one, but it’s no doubt a major talking point and a boost to the profile of Super League.
It’s an old cliché in sport, but Warrington’s 2023 was literally a season of two halves. They were sat top of the table after eight straight wins at the start of last season – but their form deteriorated, which saw head coach Daryl Powell relieved of his duties in July. They finished sixth at the end of the regular campaign before being knocked out in the play-offs.
So the big questions are: what has Burgess brought into the club? What does his coaching philosophy look like?
“I think it’s something that will evolve,” he said. “My ethos, hopefully you’ll see in the first sort of five rounds of the year of what I’ve tried to bring but the team will be the team. They’ll have their own dynamics, we’ve got some really gifted players.
“My job is not to overcoach them, it’s to enhance what they’ve got and to try to make it work best for them.
“The team’s style will probably evolve. As long as we are getting the basics done well earlier, then I’ll be happy with that.
“It (the team) needs some direction, we’ve just tried to create the framework for that, get them fit, get them understanding the basic skill of the game and we’ll see their skill and their opportunities come on the back of simple things being done better.”
Inside Sam Burgess’ three months as Warrington Wolves head coach: The players’ views
Love Rugby League caught up with Warrington quartet Joe Philbin, George Williams, Paul Vaughan and Jordan Crowther at the club’s media day, held at the Halliwell Jones Stadium.
Resilience, intense, emphasis on defence: just a handful of words described by the above about how Burgess has driven standards since his arrival in the autumn.
Philbin, who is celebrating his testimonial year with his hometown club, told Love Rugby League: “The one thing that can be questioned of us in recent years is our resilience. When things are going well for us, we’ve looked a really good team but when they haven’t, we’ve folded to an extent. The one thing Sam has brought is that resilience.
“There was no dipping his toe in the water in the first few weeks – he was very clear about how he wants us to work. We were running long, hard hills at Birchwood Park on day one and that really set the tone. That said, we are having fun and we’re enjoying it.
“At the end of the day, we’re a group of mates going out playing a game of rugby together. The more you can keep the pressure off and keep it as that viewpoint, the more the skills can come out.”
What has changed from this point last year to now?
England captain Williams, who is one of the favourites to win this year’s Steve Prescott Man of Steel award, admits there has been a rise of intensity in training since he came back into pre-season after England’s series win over Tonga.
“More intense comes to mind straight away,” Williams said. “Even meetings have been a little more intense.
“I played with Sam and he had traits of great leadership then and they’ve transferred with him into a coach. When he talks, you listen, he’s got an aura about him.
“Sam as a coach, he’s good with people so even the young lads who might not play this year, he’s getting to know them on a personal level. He knows what it takes, he knows you’ve got to know your players and I think he’s doing that really well.”
What was changed at the Wolves from this time last year to the present day?
“I think the buy-in from the group,” Williams replied. “We went to this army camp and before it Sam said ‘it won’t make you better rugby players, but it’ll make you better team-mates’. We got a lot out of that, we learned a lot about each other.
“When you’re in a tent, cold and wet, running 70-odd k’s (kilometres) in 30 hours, it was hard work but nobody quit. Everyone bought in, everyone did what they needed to do, pulling tyres around at two in the morning… All the stuff you don’t want to do, we did it. That brings you together because you complete it and are buzzing.
“It brought us together as a group, our phones were taken off us, you were talking about stuff you wouldn’t talk about at training so that brought us together and I just think the buy-in. There was no little cliques, we are together and it’s good.”
Burgess will no doubt be under the spotlight when the Super League season starts, the Wire faithful want to see a team giving their all for the badge: win or lose. But Burgess, having captained the Rabbitohs and his country, is no stranger to a high pressure environment.
“The career he’s had and the pressure he’s been under, I’m sure he takes it in his stride,” Williams added. “He’s had a great career and I don’t doubt what he’ll do in coaching either.
“There’s pressure in any high performance sport, that’s why we play it and that’s why we’re professionals because we thrive under pressure but I think Sam will do that easily. I personally think he’ll take it in his stride.
“There’s always pressure around Warrington, it’s always our year and all that malarky, but the goal doesn’t change, we’re still going for that.”
‘The attitude to defence is probably a big one’
Former Australia and Italy international Paul Vaughan enjoyed a stellar debut campaign in Super League last season from an individual point of view, being named in the Dream Team after some powerful displays through the middle.
The hulking front-rower played against Burgess several times during their time in the NRL, and feels his new boss can help him develop his game even more.
“Personally I’ve really enjoyed it, Sam was a player that I really looked up to,” Vaughan said.
“I played against Sammy a fair few times to be honest, he was a fearsome competitor and someone I really looked up to so to be coached by him is pretty special to me.
“I like to gain as much knowledge as I can. I’m getting older now, I’m 33 this year, but I’m still asking Sammy how to improve my game and all that sort of stuff because he’s got a wealth of knowledge and he’s a really good coach.”
Vaughan says Burgess has put a big emphasis on their attitude to defend and their willingness to front up for their team-mates when things get tough.
“The attitude towards defence is probably a big one,” Vaughan said when asked about what has changed.
“I probably won’t be blamed for saying but I think there were some times in the games last year when it got a little bit tough and I think we sort of shied away from tough moments in the games – on occasions, not all the time.
“I think there were some periods last year when we should’ve fronted up and tried to attack it, so I think that’s what we’ve been trying to work on this year. We wanted to be more of a tough, gritty team and we are working towards that.
“Obviously it’s going to be a work in progress – it’s a long season – so we’ve got plenty of games to get that sorted but I think resilience and pressure once the opposition puts pressure on you defensively, I think that’s probably what we are trying to achieve the most – just resilience and a bit of grit.”
Helping instil a strong mindset: ‘We’re a lot tougher and stronger for that’
Not only has Burgess worked on the physical aspects of his side’s game, but he has also worked on helping develop a stronger mentality within the Wolves.
Crowther, who has signed a contract with Wire until the end of 2025, said: “Sam has brought a lot. It’s tough for me to compare to what Daryl was like because I was only here for a week or so before he left.
“But the culture Sam has put into us is great, he’s not afraid to upset a few people and that’s how it should be. We’re all grown men, and we can handle a bit of criticism. If you can’t you’re probably in the wrong sport.
“That culture and mindset, the hard work he’s drilled into us has been huge. It’s been a tough pre-season mentally more than physically, and we’re a lot tougher and stronger for that.”
Burgess will take charge of his first competitive game as Warrington head coach next Saturday with a trip to the south of France to face Catalans Dragons, who fell short in last year’s Grand Final to champions Wigan Warriors.