Sam Burgess will depart South Sydney at the end of the 2014 NRL season to make a code switch, although doubts have emerged over whether he will be able to fulfil his dream of playing in the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
The news that Burgess will join English premiership rugby union club Bath ends weeks of speculation about the English forward’s future, with the two clubs reaching a financial settlement believed to be worth about $900,000.
Burgess said he would aim to play for England at the next World Cup, revealing a long-held ambition to become a dual international.
“I’m happy this has all been sorted out before the start of the season so that I can concentrate on my game and the team without any other things in the way,” Burgess said.
“With 2015 being a Rugby World Cup, it was an opportunity I had to pursue and I thank the Rabbitohs for allowing me to make this move and start the next chapter in my sporting career.”
Burgess joined the Rabbitohs from Super League club Bradford in 2010, becoming one of the best players in the NRL.
He insisted he would maintain high standards in his final season as the club attempt to win their first premiership since 1971, having reaching the preliminary final in the last two seasons.
“We have a great opportunity in front of us now as a group and I’ll be doing my best every week to help us win each game and hopefully improve on what we’ve been able to achieve in the past two seasons,” he said.
“My teammates, coaches, staff and the Rabbitohs members have been a huge support to me over the past four seasons and hopefully I can repay that support in 2014.”
The Rabbitohs have negotiated a clause in the release that ensures they have first and last offer on Burgess’ services should he return to rugby league in future.
Rabbitohs coach Michael Maguire said he expected Burgess to maintain his form.
“Sam remains completely focused on his job with the Rabbitohs this season,” Maguire said.
“Sam has made a real impact on the NRL over the past four seasons and his focus is on his job here at Souths, as we’re all focused on our goals for this year.”
Burgess has signed a three-year deal with Bath, who are coached by former Great Britain rugby league halfback Mike Ford.
The transition will be a tough one for him. I think the timing will be against him.
Ford is confident the big Yorkshireman has the qualities to make a successful transition to rugby.
“I’ve known Sam since his rugby league days in England and he is an exceptionally talented athlete,” Ford said.
“He’s hard working, a huge presence both on and off the field, and an ambitious young Englishman.
“All of which are qualities that we are building our squad around.
“I’ve no doubt Sam will fit in seamlessly here at Bath and we’re looking forward to having him join us and start making the transition.”
But Queensland Reds coach Richard Graham, a former assistant coach at Bath and also the Wallabies, doubts Burgess will master the nuances of rugby well enough to make the 2015 World Cup.
“I think the transition will be a tough one for him,” Graham said on Monday.
“His aspirations of going to the World Cup are going to be challenging, to say the least.
“There’s no doubt he’s a big physical guy, a very good athlete and a real professional in the way he goes about his training so he’ll give himself a chance. But I think probably the timing will be against him.
“He has to find a position and develop a skill-set there.”
Andy Farrell had more time and more experience as a ball-player to make his mark at inside centre for the 2007 World Cup
Reports out of England have suggested Bath and England coach Stuart Lancaster want to develop Burgess into an inside centre.
Graham hinted the bullocking league front-rower may not have the polish and poise in his passing and attacking game to shine at No.12 work immediately.
Former Great Britain league skipper Andy Farrell also switched to that position in rugby when he crossed codes in 2005.
But Farrell had more time – two years – and more experience as a ball-player to make his mark at inside centre for the 2007 World Cup.
Graham said: “I was fortunate to coach Andy Farrell when he crossed from Wigan to Saracens at the time but he was a guy who played No.6 (five-eighth) a fair bit in rugby league and a really good thinker and very good skill set.
“He was renowned in English rugby league and internationally and at that time he played No.8 (lock), which also distributed the ball at that period, and he came with a good understanding of the game and how to manipulate defences.”
If Souths make the NRL finals then Burgess would likely miss the first six to eight rounds of the English premiership and only have four months to impress to make England’s squad for the Six Nations – which will provide their main selection rehearsals for the World Cup.
Sonny Bill Williams enjoyed a three-year apprenticeship, including an initial two seasons in France, before playing at the 2011 World Cup but he was largely a bench-warmer for the All Blacks.
Another former NRL star, Brad Thorn, found his road even tougher, struggling in his debut season in 2001 after leaving the Brisbane Broncos, turning down and All Black jersey that year because he didn’t believe he deserved it.