Sam Burgess: Sky Sports Rugby League experts reflect on retiring star's career
By Marc Bazeley
Last Updated: 31/10/19 5:19pm
It was announced on Wednesday that Sam Burgess has been forced to retire from rugby league due to a chronic shoulder injury.
The news brought the curtain down on a playing career which began as a teenager playing for Bradford Bulls and saw him earn international honours for England in both rugby league and union, not to mention becoming an NRL champion with South Sydney Rabbitohs.
A star both here and in Australia, the 30-year-old forward leaves behind a tremendous legacy and will surely go down as one of the great players this country has produced.
Here, Sky Sports rugby league experts Barrie McDermott, Terry O'Connor, Phil Clarke and Brian Carney pay tribute to both the player and the man…
A star in the making
Burgess was just 17 when he made his debut for Bradford Bulls in a Super League derby clash with Leeds Rhinos in 2006.
Being crowned as the Bulls' senior academy player of the year as the conclusion of that season was swiftly followed by him becoming a regular in the team, showing plenty of early indications of his talent.
"Once in a generation a player comes along who lights up the game," Clarke said. "Sam did that from the start with his performances for the Bradford Bulls.
"He played like a man in what was still a boy's body - albeit a very big boy!"
Burgess' stand-out displays in 2007 soon led to international honours, putting in a man-of-the-match performance for the Northern Union in the centenary match against the New Zealand All Golds which led to him being called up to the full Great Britain team for that year's Test series.
It did not take long for him to make an impact on the world stage either, both on his opponents and a watching O'Connor in the stands.
"As soon as he stepped onto the field for his first international game, he smashed FuiFui MoiMoi," former Great Britain prop O'Connor said.
"I remember being at the game with Barrie McDermott and thinking 'Wow, look at this kid here! He's just killed one of the most aggressive runners of the ball you've ever seen."
An impact at home and abroad
Burgess rapidly became one of the stars of rugby league in this country and it was no different when he made the move down under in 2010.
Along with his brothers Tom and George, Burgess became one of the cornerstones of South Sydney's pack, playing a key role as the Rabbitohs ended a 43-year wait to be crowned premiers in 2014.
McDermott, who amassed 15 caps for Great Britain during his playing days as a forward, is in no doubt as to just how good he was both in Super League and the NRL.
"Sam Burgess will take his place in history as the best player of his generation, but I think when the dust settles and the game takes stock of his achievements he'll be regarded as one of the best players of all time," McDermott said.
"He would certainly get my vote for the Hall of Fame in this country for his commitment in his national shirt, but because of the respect he has earned across the water he'll no doubt be inducted into the NRL Hall of Fame as well."
It was not long after helping Souths to the NRL title that Burgess made the shock switch to rugby union, joining Premiership side Bath and being included in the England squad for the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
Unfortunately, it did not pan out as anticipated and he returned to the Rabbitohs after England's ill-fated campaign, but even in the 15-man code O'Connor saw the buzz Burgess created.
I think when the dust settles and the game takes stock of his achievements he’ll be regarded as one of the best players of all time.
Barrie McDermott on Sam Burgess
"I don't know whether there has been a British forward who has had the impact on the sport like he has and genuinely created headlines around the world for the things he does on the pitch," O'Connor said.
"In rugby union, he was at the forefront of everything even though it didn't work out for him. As a kid making the big move to the NRL, he was just incredible."
The mark of the man
One recurring theme is what Burgess is like off the field, not just his ability on the field.
From being a young man looking after his father Mark, who died of motor neurone disease in 2009, to his down-to-earth nature, Burgess has won much respect as a person from those who have met him.
"He isn't just a fantastic player, he's a fantastic man off the field who cared for his father at his time of need as a teenager and took that empathy to every team-mate who matched his commitment to the cause - whichever team he played for," McDermott said.
Those personal traits translated into his playing career as well and kept him grounded in the NRL, where there is much more scrutiny than Super League.
"What struck me about Sam the couple of times I've met him was how he understood that his off-field rugby league duties needed - and got - as much effort and dedication as those on the field," Carney said.
"He had Russell Crowe coming knocking on his door inviting him down to the set of where he was shooting Robin Hood and he was still the same Sam Burgess who grew up in Dewsbury," O'Connor said.
"It's the same now; you don't see him for a few years and he comes over, and he's just a phenomenal person as well as a player."
Leaving a legacy
Burgess' hard-charging, tough-tackling and all-action style was beloved both on these shores and beyond, with a sense of anticipation rising whenever he got the ball in hand.
His approach to the sport has become a prototype for others to follow as well.
"He's a sporting warrior in every sense of the word," Carney said. "The best forwards in the world used Sam Burgess as a benchmark. There can hardly be a greater accolade."
O'Connor first came across Burgess when he was seven, with the fledgling player posing for a picture with the forward after Wigan Warriors had played against Leeds at Headingley.
He always said moments like that were where he knew he wanted to play rugby league, be a star and represent his country.
Terry O'Connor on Sam Burgess
Burgess was a ball boy when O'Connor, McDermott and Carney played for Ireland at the same ground against England in the 2000 Rugby League World Cup, all of which proved inspirational for a young man who would go on to be one of the stand-out players of his era.
"He always said moments like that were where he knew he wanted to play rugby league, be a star and represent his country," O'Connor said.
"Well, you can tick all of those for what he has achieved in the game."
What the future holds
Being forced to call time on your playing career is tough for any athlete and McDermott is sympathetic to what Burgess is going through.
The former Leeds and Widnes Vikings man is still suffering with the effects of shoulder injuries from his playing days and feels Burgess is right to bring down the curtain on his career.
"As someone who suffered with shoulder injuries, I understood the dilemma," McDermott said.
"I have a titanium joint in my left shoulder, and I'm about to have my 11th shoulder operation and my third reconstruction on my right shoulder later this month.
"He has made the right decision for his future health and wellbeing."
McDermott hopes Burgess is not lost to the sport totally though and believes he could have a role to play by being involved in the Great Britain coaching set-up.
"It would be great to see him follow in the same path as another English export to Australia, Mal Reilly, and give Great Britain the extra edge which will help them to consistent victories on the international stage once more," McDermott said.