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Burgess 'could have been a huge star', but 'fiasco has made England a laughing stock'

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Sam Burgess during his ill-fated move into rugby union

Image credit: Reuters

06/11/2015 at 06:30 | Updated 06/11/2015 at 08:13

Sam Burgess's return to Australia marks the end of a sad chapter in English rugby while rubbing salt into the wound of a host nation still smarting from an absymal World Cup campaign.

Within a year of returning home to try his hand at the 15-man code, Burgess heads back to rugby league and Sydney, bruised and disillusioned after becoming a lightning rod for criticism of England's flop in the global showpiece.

The 26-year-old will re-join two of his three brothers at the South Sydney Rabbitohs, the National Rugby League team he helped drive to a breakthrough championship in 2014.

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The third brother plays for NRL rivals Manly, a short ferry-ride from the harbour city's CBD.

All are supported by their Sydney-based mum Julie, who was heartbroken when her son announced he was leaving to pursue his World Cup dream.

[THE NEWS AS IT BROKE: England Sam Burgess centre leaves Bath, joins South Sydney Rabbitohs ]

Burgess will be 29 at the end of his three-year contract with the Rabbitohs, all but ensuring his union days will be remembered as an ill-fated cameo.

'He could have been a huge star'

For 2003 World Cup-winning centre Will Greenwood, English rugby union will be haunted by the 'what ifs?' after letting a still-developing talent slip through their fingers.

"Sadness. Complete and utter sadness," Greenwood wrote in a column for Britain's Daily Telegraph.

"Sadness that we will never find out how far Burgess could have gone in union. In my opinion, he could have been a huge star in 2019. Now we will never know."

'Burgess fiasco had made England a laughing stock'

Sir Clive Woodward, writing in the Daily Mail, was less charitable even if his ire was not aimed at Burgess himself.

"Burgess is not to blame for this mess and I stand by it. But with his return to rugby league we've reached one of the all-time lows and most embarrassing points in English rugby history," he wrote.

"The RFU has spent the last four years congratulating itself on the direction in which we're heading, but the truth is we have marched confidently into a total mess. The panel chosen to identify Martin Johnson's successor somehow selected Stuart Lancaster, a coach lacking any true coaching experience at any level to prepare our national team for a home World Cup... The result was England failing to grasp what was required to challenge at the World Cup.

"After a second poor tournament in a row, the errors continue, illustrated by the personnel chosen to review Lancaster and England... We are the laughing stock of not only world rugby but also sport and business. The rest of the world says those involved in English rugby are arrogant. I hate this reputation, but that is exactly what the RFU have been. The saddest part is the players and fans have been let down."

Was Lancaster's hand 'forced'?

England head coach Stuart Lancaster's position is under serious threat

Image credit: PA Sport

Few could begrudge Burgess if he never turned a covetous eye toward England's campaign for the 2019 World Cup in Japan.

In working hard to learn the intricacies of union at Bath, the bulky Yorkshireman fulfilled his end of the bargain, staying focused on his task despite the scepticism that inevitably dogged his every step on the playing field.

England coach Lancaster spoke of Burgess 'forcing his hand' at the selection table, even to the point that he was prepared to throw him in the centres despite the player being deployed as a flanker at Bath.

The unlikely gambit appeared set to pay dividends as late as England's World Cup opener against Fiji, when Burgess's direct running and deft off-loading impressed in a cameo off the bench.

His selection in the starting side against Wales was hugely polarising, but he could hardly have been blamed for that narrow defeat, having been substituted well before captain Chris Robshaw eschewed a penalty kick that could have cobbled a draw.

Hero's welcome awaits in Sydney?

Demoted for the final match against Australia, Burgess was in no position to stave off a crushing defeat from the bench and rescue England's World Cup campaign.

Yet, when recriminations came, it was often Burgess fingered for the wider failings of a team that patently struggled to live up to the hype.

Luring Burgess back to league was a formality for Australia's cashed-up NRL, which maintains a war-chest of funds to secure marquee talents.

A hero's welcome awaits Down Under for the player who won the man-of-the-match award in the NRL's 2014 final while nursing a broken cheekbone through most of the contest.

Sam Burgess returned to rugby league

Image credit: PA Sport

The Rabbitohs' Oscar-winning owner Russell Crowe helped lure Burgess away from England in 2009 and the player's role in lifting the Rabbitohs to their first championship in over 40 years had all the hallmarks of a feel-good Hollywood film.

The stint in union never went to script but Burgess could yet prove a smash hit in his Australian sequel.

He could also prove a World Cup winner for England, but far from his homeland when rugby league stages its global championship in Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea in 2017.

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