Sam Burgess’ bold code switch has been rewarded with England team selection for the Rugby World Cup’s opening match against Fiji at Twickenham.
England coach Stuart Lancaster will be hoping 2014 NRL grand final hero Burgess can provide power and impact off the bench after showing great faith in him.
Making the match-day 23 as a replacement centre is an enormous achievement for Burgess but it also represents a calculated gamble by Lancaster.
It comes only 10 months after Burgess started his rugby union career with English club Bath, and he has played most of it as a backrower.
Lancaster opted for more the experienced centre pairing of Brad Barritt and Jonathan Joseph to start against Fiji, while Burgess beat out talented Exeter midfielder Henry Slade for the bench spot.
Burgess has made two appearances for England to date in World Cup warm up Tests, the last a patchy performance against Ireland at the start of the month.
Coming on in the 60th minute, he threw a forward pass and then dropped a pass before producing some strong runs and trademark big defensive hits.
Fellow code hopper Sonny Bill Williams, meanwhile, believes Lancaster has erred by viewing Burgess as a centre, insisting his best position is in the forwards as flanker.
Like Burgess, All Blacks star Williams was a barnstorming forward in rugby league and he has made a success of playing in the backs in the 15-man game, though he had much more time to adapt after starting in French club rugby.
Williams believes Burgess is destined to play in the forwards in future, pointing to his impressive performance in Bath’s loss to Saracens in the Premiership final – lauded as the 26-year-old’s finest match in his new code.
“(It’s a) massive achievement, really proud of Sam,” Williams said of Burgess’ selection.
“He’s a good man and I know that he will handle it with ease, he just needs time in the saddle.
“For me personally, after watching his games… don’t get me wrong he goes really well at centre, but I think his prime position in the future will be on the side of the ruck.
Lancaster, who took over the post after Martin Johnson’s calamitous World Cup campaign in New Zealand four years ago, said all the signs were positive as England bid to land the trophy for the second time, and also go one better than the last time the English hosted the tournament when they lost to Australia in the 1991 final.
“The squad is massively excited to start the World Cup,” said Lancaster.
“Everyone has worked incredibly hard over the last three months and we are ready.”
England: Mike Brown; Anthony Watson, Jonathan Joseph, Brad Barritt, Jonny May; George Ford, Ben Youngs; Ben Morgan, Chris Robshaw (capt), Tom Wood; Courtney Lawes, Geoff Parling; Dan Cole, Tom Youngs, Joe Marler.
Replacements: Rob Webber, Mako Vunipola, Kieran Brookes, Joe Launchbury, Billy Vunipola, Richard Wigglesworth, Owen Farrell, Sam Burgess.