Peter Sterling: Why Burgess is the complete package

When it comes to game analysis and rugby league strategy, there are few who rival the passion and experience of Peter Sterling.

First a game-breaking player at the highest level, now the brains behind the Channel Nine commentary team - it's fair to say 'Sterlo' has earned the right to have an opinion.

This season footy fans will get a chance to delve into the mind of the man himself.

'Sterlo' is now a permanent member of the NRL.com team. Stay tuned for his column each and every Wednesday throughout the season. 



South Sydney coach John Lang described it as a “reality check”.

After watching his side cop a 36-10 mauling at the hands of arch-rivals the Roosters over the weekend there was little more to say.

In fact, being the level-headed character that he is I’m sure that John would have preferred that there had been much less said about his Rabbits leading in to 2010.

Star English import Sam Burgess was also a man of few words after a less than auspicious start to his NRL career. Whilst being down in the mouth about this clash, the young Yorkshireman can rest assured that there are better days to come.

I had the good fortune to interview him last week and began by asking what had been his biggest thrill to date?

Having already played Test football for Great Britain, including two cracking tries against Australia in last year’s Four Nation’s Final, I thought it only natural to assume that they would be on the top of the list.

I was both surprised and delighted in his answer of “learning to surf”.

How much fun does it sound like this rising star is having adapting to the Australian way of life?

Sam Burgess is a breath of fresh air and destined to be the best English forward to ply his trade Down Under.

I know that’s a big statement when you consider the quality of player that has headed to the southern hemisphere and our competition. In my time the likes of Cliff Watson, Brian Lockwood, Phil Lowe, Steve Norton, Mike Stephenson, Bill Ashurst, Kevin Ward, Lee Crooks and Adrian Morley have all made lasting impressions. I believe that Burgess has the potential to have an even bigger impact.

At just 21 years of age he is well on the way to being the complete package and it is well worth breaking down his game to see why he can be so successful.

The most obvious asset is size.

Standing 195cm and weighing in at 110 kilos he is immediately an imposing proposition.

Now there are plenty of huge men in the NRL but few are so comfortable with their body as Burgess and as to how best utilize that physical advantage.

Players like Tom Learoyd-Lahrs, Ben Cross and Dave Taylor have phenomenal builds but at times appear almost awkward in comparison. It’s like they are still learning how to grow into their bodies.

That leads us to athleticism and in my opinion - his greatest attraction.

Until last year and the introduction of a second referee, the NRL was all about forwards running straight to hit the advantage line off quick play-the-balls. Dominating the middle third corridor of the field was everything.

Obviously today it is still very important but with defences setting themselves a touch quicker - evasion, creativity and ball playing has made a welcome comeback.

That elevates front-rowers with footwork before the defensive line to diamond status and at the moment there are very few real gems.

Adam Blair, Roy Asotasi, Frank Pritchard are a couple that come to mind. Nathan Cayless, Petero Civinoceva and Brent Kite can also produce a nice step or jink into their work.

Again, Burgess is the most effective because he can step off both feet at speed yet maintain balance. This allows him to be in a position to offload at the collision and generate some second-phase play.

Then there is versatility.
 
There are any number of players who can cover both second-row and front-row, or second-row and lock, but to be ideally suited to all three roles is fairly unique. Sam wore number 13 against the Roosters but it could easily have been 8 or 11.

Finally, to be truly top class you need to be a mentally tough individual.

Just making the decision to come to Australia and take on the challenge of the NRL gave an indication that Sam is well served in that department. The easy thing would have been to stay in the English Super League where he already carried superstar status. That would have assured big dollars and any number of attractive fringe benefits.

Instead he recognized that to be the best he could be and reach his full potential it was necessary to pit himself against the best in the world on a weekly basis.

That took courage, confidence and real self belief.

Brad Fittler told me that as assistant coach of the NRL All Stars there was an instance during the Indigenous clash where he had cause to scream at Burgess to get off the ground and back into the defensive line.

He knew the Englishman was highly fatigued and struggling in the humid conditions and that the call could easily go unheeded.

Instead, the ears were pinned back, the arms pumped and the hole in the wall was filled.

In such moments we learn plenty about an individual. Much of winning is based on the mind saying “yes” when the body is screaming “no”.

Sam Burgess wasn’t great against the Roosters last weekend but he was still comfortably one of the Rabbitohs' best. He dropped too much ball but still led the way in metres gained, total tackles and offloads.

With his vast array of talents there are much greater things in store.

In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Mick Fanning and Kelly Slater are already looking nervously over their shoulders.