Farewell to a genuine superstar of the game
Sam Burgess, one of England’s great sporting exports, won Australian hearts as an NRL icon
Sam Burgess announced his retirement this week and I can only pay tribute to a genuine superstar of the game and someone I am proud to call a friend. Having played with and against him for well over a decade, I know what an unbelievable competitor and special talent Sam was.
The 2014 NRL Grand Final, South Sydney Rabbitohs v Canterbury Bulldogs, summed him up when he suffered a broken cheekbone and eye socket. It was the first tackle of the game and, as Sam ran towards me, I thought: “Oh God, here we go.”
I did not feel great but it was obviously far worse for Sam, given his injuries. But he went on to win the Clive Churchill Medal as the match’s best player and was a huge reason why Souths won that game.
But it goes deeper. Sam drove Souths forward for several years leading up to that final and was hugely instrumental in them becoming a champion team.
I am loath to compare Sam to other great players because there are so many variables. I always remember that great battle he had with Sonny Bill Williams in the 2013 World Cup semi-final at Wembley.
What I will say is that Sam came over to the NRL – in a country where Englishmen are not well liked – and he dominated it. Moreover, he won the hearts and minds of people there.
Sam and his three brothers, Tom, George and Luke, all played together for Souths and I know how much that meant to them. It was quite the sporting achievement.
Sam’s a bit of a celebrity but when you are with him, he is fundamentally the same lad who grew up in West Yorkshire. He has never let go of that and I think he needs to be commended for it.
I remember watching him burst on to the scene at Bradford Bulls as a 17-year-old and thinking, “Wow, this guy can throw himself about.”
The first time we played against each other, Sam hit Gareth Frodsham, a promising young prop at St Helens, like a ton of bricks. Confidence-wise, I don’t think Gareth ever recovered.
Twelve years ago, Sam made his Great Britain debut, when we beat New Zealand in Huddersfield. Sam being Sam, he announced himself on the world stage with a huge hit on Fuifui Moimoi, then one of the world’s most feared forwards.
We were room-mates during that Test series and have been good friends ever since.
You knew when he crossed that white line he was going to give his best and that inspired you to do likewise. He made you feel comfortable because you knew how much ability he had as a defender and an attacker.
A lot of top-level players are one or the other, but he could hurt the opposition in both departments.
He was just a phenomenal leader and someone you looked forward to playing with, so I wish him well in whatever he decides to do next.
Last weekend saw Great Britain lose our opening game of the tour to Tonga, who were exceptional and worthy winners.
They were really smart tactically and we suffered injuries to Oliver
Gildart and Luke Thompson. I am gutted in particular for Oliver, whose tour is over as he requires shoulder surgery.
We will take positives from last week, smarten up, and take that into the New Zealand game tomorrow.
Joe Philbin is set for his debut and he’s a young, infectious ball of energy. I am a St Helens fan and, watching this year’s Challenge Cup final, I was thinking, “Can someone please stop this lad Philbin?” He was sensational in Warrington’s victory and deserves his chance in a Great Britain jersey.
So too does Jake Connor, who takes Oliver’s place in the centres. Jake is a natural talent and I am looking forward to him showing what he can do and possibly keeping his place for a long time.
Unbelievable competitor: Sam Burgess gave his best every time he crossed the white line