As soon as Sam Burgess washed his hands of rugby union, South Sydney officials fell over themselves getting to the phone and the salary cap ready reckoner. It was, so the story goes, too good to be true.
Sam Burgess, favourite son (almost literally) of the Russell Crowe-owned Rabbitohs, wanted to return to the NRL, specifically to Redfern – although for the sake of geographical accuracy, it should be pointed out to our non-Sydney readers that Souths play their home games an hour’s drive from their “spiritual” home.
Straight away, the absence of Big Sam from the Rabbitohs 2015 campaign was seen as THE reason that Souths didn’t become the first club since the Brisbane Broncos in 1992-93 to win back-to-back premierships. Burgess’s last game for the club was the 2014 Grand Final, where in a display of undeniable courage he played almost the entire game with a fractured cheekbone, an injury sustained in the very first hit-up of the match. His performance on that day against the Bulldogs secured him the Clive Churchill Medal as player of the match.
In truth, his display was muscular and competent, the kind of game you expect a prop forward to churn out. The medal was more an award for bravery than skill, but Big Sam channelled the spirit of Souths legend John Sattler, who completed a Grand Final more than four decades earlier with a broken jaw. It was a nod to history and tradition.
The simple equation works for Souths fans. In 2014, with big Sam, Souths broke a 43-year drought to win the premiership. In 2015, without him, they barely scraped into the top eight. In 2016, with the Messiah back, it’s not too early to book tickets for Homebush in the first weekend of October.
Rugby League is not a complicated game, but there is more to it than re-signing a prop forward, albeit one of the best in the game two seasons ago. In essence, the arrival of Sam Burgess has necessitated the departure of Dylan Walker and Chris McQueen. In the case of Walker, it could be seen as weakening a strength to strengthen a weakness. And some fans were disgruntled with the forced departure of McQueen and Walker, Souths making their intentions blatantly public the moment Burgess became available.
Add to this the fact that Souths were not exactly lacking in the engine room in 2015. They started the season looking like a team who were nigh on unbeatable, a fact pointed out by TV commentator and former coach Phil Gould, who often said: “Souths have forgotten how to lose.” Their forward pack was steamrolling over the advantage line in most of their games and Adam Reynolds was playing the orchestra conductor at halfback, while Isaac Luke stamped himself as one of the best dummy-half runners in the game, with no little ball skill to match.
Reynolds is still there, but significantly Luke is not, although his departure was known long before Sam Burgess loomed as an option. The South Sydney premiership defence fell apart in the run home to the 2015 play-offs due to an alarming form slump and the sight of Greg Inglis barely making it off the ground in games he played, with an accumulated list of injuries. The backline stopped functioning, Reynolds lost form, and the side stopped scoring points. Yes, their forwards started to look vulnerable but it would take some seriously rose-coloured glasses to suggest that none of this would have happened had Big Sam not been trying his hand at rugby union.
Significantly, Souths looked at the back end of 2015 like a team that had become disharmonious. Rumours of player disgruntlement persist into 2016 despite one of the most respected coaches in the NRL, Michael Maguire, continuing to steer the Rabbitoh ship. Crowe had a falling out with Luke Keary, Reynolds has reportedly askef for a release and the speculation is that Inglis is heading north to Brisbane in 2017.
While Sam Burgess is undoubtedly a popular figure at the club, and across the competition, the manner of his re-signing is not the stuff of reconciliation to a disgruntled group. There is also the matter of Burgess’s disciplinary record. His last season in the NRL saw him caught using the squirrel grip, attempting to gouge James Maloney, and generally waging a cheap shot war with opposition forwards. It’s a side of his game he doesn’t need, and nor do Souths need him banished to the sidelines for an extended period, now they’ve virtually made him their marquee player.
That he comes with an upside is undeniable. He’s a charismatic figure, a player who draws fans through the gate, and is geniune box office. He’s also damn good at being a prop, let’s not minimise that fact. His workrate is impressive, he breaks tackles and he intimidates in defence. He’s the kind of player who lifts his teammates, he’s a leader who never backs down from a battle.
Sam will be the guy other fans will love to hate while the cameras and Souths fans will just love him. Will his presence be enough to see the Rabbitohs through to October? Souths are banking on it and have cracked a lot of eggs to make the omelette they hope will feed their premiership ambitions.