Making a superstar: Steve McNamara, Sam Burgess and the unforgiving world of a head coach

George Riley
Bradford Bulls badge, England RL badge, Steve McNamara, Catalans Dragons badge, Sam Burgess, Warrington Wolves badge, Stade Gilbert Brutus in the background

Steve McNamara (left) gave Sam Burgess (right) his Super League debut 18 years ago. Tonight, they go up against one another as the respective coaches of Catalans Dragons & Warrington Wolves - Alamy

Rugby league was stunned when Super League champions Bradford Bulls sold their Great Britain international prop Stuart Fielden to relegation-threatened Wigan Warriors for a world record transfer fee 18 years ago.

But it was this single moment, a sensational £450,000 mid-season move, that sparked one of the great British sporting careers.

For thrust into the senior Bulls’ side was a raw teenage diamond named Sam Burgess, trusted by the club’s inexperienced new head coach Steve McNamara to hold his own in a team boasting legends Lesley Vainikolo, Iestyn Harris, Terry Newton and Shontayne Hape.

The rest is history, and fittingly this weekend it is his old mentor McNamara with whom Burgess goes toe-to-toe in his first ever game as a head coach, as the 52-year-old’s Catalans Dragons host the 35-year-old’s Warrington Wolves.

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Making a superstar: Steve McNamara recalls handing Sam Burgess his first opportunity as a young starlet at Bradford Bulls

“We let Fielden go because we had Sam Burgess,” Catalans boss McNamara tells Love Rugby League in an exclusive interview ahead of their season opener. 

It is a tale that the former England boss thinks about often, one that both set the tone for his own coaching career, and laid the platform for Burgess to launch an extraordinary journey as a player.

First and foremost, it was a really tough first 10 days as a head coach,” McNamara recalls of his baptism of fire at Odsal.

Sam Burgess
An 18-year-old Sam Burgess in action for Bradford Bulls back in 2007 – Alamy

“You get your first job as a head coach and then your best, your most valuable player comes in and says that he wants to move. He wanted to go to Wigan where Brian Noble, our previous coach had just gone.

“You want to keep your best players, but you want to do the best deal for the club as well. Financially, the club did the latter.”

McNamara may have had little say in the sale, but he knew that Bradford’s furious fans could be swiftly appeased by fast-tracking one of the stars of the future from the academy, and throwing him straight into his team of superstars.

“We let Fielden go because we knew we had Sam. That’s the bottom line. But he was 17 at the time.

“I had worked with our under-20s and he was playing in that team so I knew the quality of him but wasn’t quite sure if he was ready. I had no choice but to throw him into the deep end, and it was sink or swim. He certainly swam.”

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‘His father was seriously ill, he was dying, and Sam had to step up’: How Burgess overcame unthinkable family heartache to mould into a star 

McNamara believes that the 17-year old entered the macho first-team dressing room at Odsal already a man, his late teens stolen by hardship at home, with unthinkable family heartache accelerating his adolescence and hardening his demeanour.

“He had the physical attributes without a doubt but he had a lot going on in his personal life. His father was seriously ill, he was dying, and Sam had to step up,” McNamara said.

“You are a 16, 17-year old boy looking after your father with Motor Neurone Disease, trying to be a professional player, trying to mature as a young man, going from an adolescent into a man in a dressing room that is unforgiving, in a professional sport.

“Dealing with all of those things at the same time he did incredibly well, and that – of all of his achievements he has made in sport, is probably for me his biggest achievement – the ultimate achievement, dealing with that as a young man.”

Sam Burgess
Sam Burgess in action for Great Britain against New Zealand in 2007 – Alamy

Once Burgess broke into that 2006 Bradford tea.  there was no looking back, quickly becoming a Bulls and England mainstay and landing his life-changing NRL move to Russell Crowe’s South Sydney Rabbitohs.

“Once he got into the team he established himself so quickly that his contract was rewritten within six months and he played for Great Britain really quickly,” McNamara continued.

“Those couple of big collisions in test matches on the likes of Fuifui Moimoi. It was those moments that established the Burgess name on the international stage and quite quickly the NRL came looking for him.”

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Bradford’s golden generation torn apart as players moved on with McNamara taking England reins

While being the making of Burgess, his move to Australia also proved the beginning of the end to Bradford’s glorious run of dominance, and according to McNamara a period from which the club has never recovered. 

“His NRL move was really one of the death knells of the Bradford Bulls generation,” McNamara said.

“Things hadn’t been going too well but with Sam Burgess, brothers Tom and George coming through, and John Bateman, Elliott Whitehead, James Donaldson too.

“If we could have kept that crew together, it could have been something special. But it wasn’t meant to be, Sam took off and the rest of his career is history.”

McNamara and Burgess would be reunited with England, with their coach-player leadership dynamic bringing England agonisingly close to glory in the home World Cup of 2013.

He said: “We had a very tight, close bond. He was a great player for England with some great players alongside him. It is just such a shame looking back at that semi-final loss in 2013.

Steve McNamara, Sam Burgess
Then-England head coach Steve McNamara (centre, left) watches on during a test match against France with Sam Burgess (centre, right) – Alamy

“It was heart-wrenching, because if we get through that semi-final with New Zealand then who knows what happens. Sam was an integral leader of our England group and the leadership skills and maturity he had at that age was phenomenal.”

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‘You can never say whether someone will be successful or not as a coach just because they were a good player’

So now comes the start of a new chapter. Old player becomes young coach, as Burgess leads Warrington for the first time against his former boss in the south of France.

Just like when he was a player, Burgess is an unknown quantity, and McNamara has warned that it could be a baptism of fire in an unforgiving industry.

“You can never say whether someone will be successful or not as a coach just because they were a good player,” he continued.

“But he will absolutely give himself every chance to be successful. If he doesn’t make it then it will not be through not putting the effort, detail or research in.

“The coaching world is a tough world and you can do all of that and it will still not quite work for you. But Sam Burgess will give himself the very best chance and he is fortunate to be at a great club with good financial backing and so much quality at his disposal.

“Warrington is a very good first job to get.There will be people waiting for him to fail, but there will be plenty wanting him to succeed.

“As a player, you are not responsible for everyone. As a coach you are, so you can become very defensive of your group. Those questions will come thick and fast regarding his team, the players he works closely with, the other staff. 

Sam Burgess
Warrington Wolves head coach Sam Burgess at the 2024 Super League season launch – Alamy

“I was talking to Sam Tomkins about this recently. When you are a player approaching retirement, the word ‘old’ comes into play and you feel like an old man.

“But when you stop, you become a young coach, a young journalist, a young administrator. You become young and inexperienced again. And that is exciting.”

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