News of Sam Burgess’ return to South Sydney has divided opinions.
While it sounds cynical, elite sport is a business, players are freelancers and clubs are franchises, all hunting for the best deal. The rise of global Twenty20 premier leagues has established a new breed of freelance cricketers making a comfortable living as travelling Twenty20 players.
This is understandable. An elite athlete’s career is relatively short. While the cream can play for two decades (or more depending on the sport), the majority only have 10-15 years at best. The cutthroat nature of elite sport means years of hard work can be ruined by a few bad injuries or poor games. You can’t blame players for looking to make as much money as possible to ensure a comfortable retirement.
Look at Jarryd Hayne. The former Parramatta superstar’s move to the NFL seemed risky, but when he made the San Francisco team after some promising pre-season games, everyone rejoiced. The Hayne Plane had achieved his dream. Surely he was set for life now.
A month or so later, he was cut from the team. Rejected by the other NFL franchises, he re-signed to the 49ers non-playing practice squad for a significant pay cut. All the hype and goodwill over Hayne masked the reality: Hayne was a minor player in a struggling team and was given limited chances.
Many elite athletes are gifted enough to succeed in multiple sports. Recently, Karmichael Hunt and Israel Folau have played the top level in rugby league, AFL and rugby union (though Hunt is yet to play for the Wallabies). Both players were poached by the AFL (Hunt to Gold Coast Suns, Folau to GWS Giants), seen by some as a cynical publicity stunt for the new teams.
Hunt played 44 games in four seasons for the Suns, while Folau played 13 for the Giants in 2012 before signing for the NSW Waratahs in 2013. Folau has flourished in rugby, playing 44 games for the Waratahs (including their 2014 Super Rugby championship win) and played for the Wallabies in the World Cup.
Hunt has struggled since joining the QLD Reds, playing nine games in the 2015 Super Rugby and – missing World Cup selection – for Brisbane City in the National Rugby Championship. Injuries and off-field controversies haven’t helped.
So what does this have to do with Burgess?
When Burgess joined Souths in 2010, he became a superstar. “Slammin’ Sam” Burgess was the most marketable of the Burgess clan (including Tom, George and Luke). He was a regular on the Thursday NightFooty Show and was the target of one of Beau Ryan’s “hilarious” impressions, implying a fictional relationship with singer Susan Boyle. Burgess – to his credit – took the joke well. Burgess left Souths after the 2014 grand final win (playing through a broken cheekbone), with 95 games under his belt, to play rugby union for Bath on a three-year contract, aiming to represent England in the World Cup (he’d previously played 15 league Tests for Great Britain and England). Burgess played 21 games for Bath and was picked in England’s World Cup squad. Then it turned sour. Burgess was the scapegoat for England’s early exit and left for the comfort of Souths in early November.
The UK press slammed Burgess for leaving Bath early. Never mind that Burgess was talented enough to switch codes and play for his country so quickly.
Should Burgess be criticised for bailing on rugby after one year – another multitalented footballer being too picky and leaving when things don’t go his way – or should he be commended for cutting his losses and returning to the NRL?
The fact Burgess rejoined Souths works in his favour. If Burgess was purely after the money, he would have joined the team with the biggest paycheck or played rugby elsewhere.
The NRL – and Souths – will welcome him back. Channel Nine will hype Burgess’ return during the pre-season and first game back with Souths will be a ratings goldmine.
Like Folau in the AFL, perhaps Burgess’ union stint can be written off as a failed experiment. Burgess will surely have a bigger impact at the Rabbitohs than English rugby. It’s likely the 26-year-old Burgess will stay with Souths until he retires and resume his international league career with England/Great Britain, his shortlived union stint a distant memory.