Less than 12 months after helping South Sydney to a first NRL premiership in over four decades, Sam Burgess has played his way into England’s Rugby World Cup squad.
Burgess, the Clive Churchill Medal winner in the Rabbitohs’ Grand Final triumph over Canterbury, was included after playing just 70 minutes of Test rugby union – his debut in a 19-14 win over France at Twickenham a fortnight ago seeing him sin-binned for 10 minutes.
The 26-year-old edged out the more experienced Luther Burrell for a place among England coach Stuart Lancaster’s centres even though Burgess spent much of last season playing as a back-row forward for Bath.
Henry Slade, who also impressed on his debut against France at Twickenham, was also included in midfield alongside Burgess – although Jonathan Joseph and Brad Barritt appear to be England’s first-choice centres.
Ben Morgan, only recently returned from a broken leg, was included among the back-row forwards with Harlequins veteran Nick Easter missing out while Sale fly-half Danny Cipriani, as was widely forecast, also failed to make it to the final squad.
“It’s really positive that we have such depth and options to choose from,” said Lancaster.
“Selection wasn’t easy and it is tough to leave anyone out but it’s important to stress that the players not in this group are still part of our wider squad and could come in at any point.”
Burgess’s selection is likely to prove highly controversial, especially as Burrell was ever-present in the last two Six Nations.
Prior to Lancaster’s announcement, former England captain and centre Will Carling said of Burgess: “I’m in awe of Sam as a rugby league player, but there is no one that I have spoken to who I respect – ex-players, coaches – who thinks he’s ready.
“He’s been playing union for 10 months and half of that was in a different position to what England are playing him in…If you watched Burgess carefully he was out of position a huge amount in defence and England can’t afford that against sides who will focus on him,” explained Carling.
Tournament hosts England begin the World Cup against Fiji at Twickenham on September 18, having been drawn in a tough group also featuring Australia and Wales. As a result, one of rugby union’s major nations will fail to make the last eight as only the top two teams from each pool qualify for the quarter-finals.
England, beaten 25-20 defeat by France in Paris last weekend, conclude their warm-up campaign against Ireland at Twickenham on September 5.
England World Cup squad
Back three: Mike Brown (Harlequins), Alex Goode (Saracens), Jonny May (Gloucester), Jack Nowell (Exeter), Anthony Watson (Bath)
Centres: Brad Barritt (Saracens), Sam Burgess (Bath), Jonathan Joseph (Bath), Henry Slade (Exeter)
Fly-halves: Owen Farrell (Saracens), George Ford (Bath)
Scrum-halves: Danny Care (Harlequins), Richard Wigglesworth (Saracens), Ben Youngs (Leicester)
Back-rows: James Haskell (Wasps), Ben Morgan (Gloucester), Chris Robshaw (Harlequins, capt), Billy Vunipola (Saracens) Tom Wood (Northampton)
Second-rows: George Kruis (Saracens), Joe Launchbury (Wasps), Courtney Lawes (Northampton), Geoff Parling (Exeter)
Props: Kieran Brookes (Northampton), Dan Cole (Leicester), Joe Marler (Harlequins), Mako Vunipola (Saracens), David Wilson (Bath)
Hookers: Jamie George (Saracens), Rob Webber (Bath), Tom Youngs (Leicester)