Sam Burgess insists he isn’t trying to live up to anyone’s expectations but the code-hopping star’s international rugby union debut certainly made the right impression.
Burgess earned his first England cap at Twickenham on Saturday night, mixing bone-crunching hits with a smart passing game after starting at inside centre in the 19-14 win over France, which suggested he wouldn’t be out of his depth if called into the World Cup squad.
The 26-year-old has tried to keep a low profile while he learns the game in a bid to crack the final 31-man squad, to be named at the end of the month.
But if he didn’t already have the attention of England fans, and opposition centres around the globe, he certainly will after a memorable debut.
It took less than a minute for Burgess to show what he is capable of – the former NRL enforcer rushed out of the line and crunched French captain Dmitri Szarzewski in a brutal hit.
The tone was set, and Burgess refused to let up.
“I didn’t go out looking for (the big hit),” he said.
“I trusted in my training that we’ve done over the last six weeks.
“I didn’t try and do anything I didn’t try and live up to the hype that’s been going on around.
“I just tried to fit in the team and do my job.”
Burgess was busy in defence, piling into tackles with the powerful regularity which earned him the Clive Churchill medal in last year’s NRL grand final win while playing for South Sydney, his final match before making the switch to rugby union.
He had the Twickenham crowd on their feet once more when he thumped his opposite, Alexandre Dumoulin, before showing he has something to offer in attack as well.
Touted as little more than a battering ram, Burgess did produce some trademark bullocking runs to crash over the gain line but also showed swift hands as part of a wraparound play with fellow centre Henry Slade in the build-up to Anthony Watson’s second try.
Burgess has certainly come a long way since his inauspicious debut for the England Saxons, the reserve squad, in January.
On that occasion he was criticised heavily for being out of position, out of sorts and ultimately out of his depth.
The same could not be said of the former Rabbitoh on Saturday night.
Burgess did concede a soft yellow card late in the first half when he naively tackled wily Frenchman Morgan Parra, despite being clearly offside following a quick tap by the halfback – an infringement which would not have triggered a sin-binning in the NRL, but is an automatic yellow card in his new sport.
Burgess is locked in a battle with Slade for one of the remaining World Cup spots, and the performances of both would’ve surely impressed coach Stuart Lancaster – without making his decision any easier.
“Sam was good. He would have been disappointed to get sin-binned but I thought his decision making on when to pass and when to carry was good and his defensive physicality was good,” Lancaster said. “He translated what he did in training into the game which is a hard thing to do on his first cap but he did well.
“He’s prepared to get off the line and hits people.
“It was nice to see him take his opportunity, I thought he played well and made some good decisions on the ball.”