Burgess legacy carved in blood and bone
THE first time Australia heard of Sam Burgess was when he slew a beast.
That beast was named Fuifui Moimoi, and he was 125kg of Tongan who was carved out of stone, a man who was never broken and always did the breaking, and who never met a rugby league problem he couldn't trample down into the dirt.
It was the first Test between New Zealand and Great Britain in 2007. Moimoi might not have been the best forward in the world, but he inspired terror like few others. In the final quarter of the match, Moimoi caught a dropout and did the Fuifui Moimoi thing - he carried it back as hard as any human could, and dared the Poms to take him down.
Normally it takes a small army to stop Moimoi. This time it was one man, an 18-year-old at that, starting in the front row in his Test debut. Burgess hammered Moimoi, front on and unassisted, slaying the beast when he was still a boy. When it comes to front-rowers, you have to beat the man to be the man, and Burgess beat Moimoi bad.
Back then, Super League wasn't as accessible as it is now. There was one or two games a week on Fox Sports, if you were lucky, and the players over there were exotic and mysterious purely because we didn't know that much. You had to fill in the gaps yourself, and that let the imagination run wild. They always bred the forwards big in the north of England, but being large and being powerful are two different things, and knowing how to use that power is a third thing still.
So when South Sydney signed Burgess, with Russell Crowe famously courting the Bradford man on the set of Robin Hood, there wasn't a lot to go on apart from the Moimoi hit. He would come over for season 2010, and the 2009 Four Nations final would be his last game on English soil before he was to become a Rabbitoh.
Australia won the game 40-14, because beating England is just what the Kangaroos do. But nine minutes in, Burgess flew onto the ball on the Australia 40 metre line. He blew past Petero Civoniceva with breathtaking ease and a left foot step no man that size should have, then sold Billy Slater a dummy and scored under the posts. It was remarkable for any player, let alone a forward, let alone someone who was still a kid - Burgess had already done enough to stamp his ticket to Australia and he was 20-years-old.
These two moments show us the two sides of Burgess. He is a tremendously gifted athlete, with size and strength and the agility to use those weapons all over the field on anyone who got too close. That's what made him a player. But it was the other stuff that made him a legend, a willingness to trade in blood and bone.
Off the field he was a media darling, funny and personable and comfortable in the spotlight. On the field, he'd fight you in the gutter if he had to. I don't think it's right to call him brave, because to be brave a man first has to be afraid, and Sam Burgess played as though the very concept of fear was something that could never touch him.
His journey from when he joined the Rabbitohs is well known. Burgess fast became South Sydney's best forward, then their best player, then the best forward in the league. He brought his brothers down with him, and they had their moments but Sam was always the best of them. Things culminated with his incredible 2014 season, when the Rabbitohs won their 21st premiership, the one that seemed like it would never come.
The sight of the most fearsome man in the sport squatted on his haunches, tears flowing from his broken face, is the most powerful image from a day that was so full of emotion and catharsis and every other feeling that comes from a 43-year premiership drought, and the death and resurrection and new life of a club that carries its own history and those moments like no other. Burgess has said he wanted to be remembered at South Sydney forever. The Rabbitohs have a lot of ancient legends, but not many modern ones, and Burgess is one of them.
. @russellcrowe said it best, "the sparkly-eyed man". @SamBurgess8 was a force of nature on a footy field and did things mere mortals dare not attempt.— Tony Webeck (@TonyWebeck) October 30, 2019
Greatest @SSFCRABBITOHS player of my lifetime; the moment I'll never forget. #ThanksSam pic.twitter.com/47caM4BdpL
That was as good as it ever got for Sam Burgess, and it was pretty good almost all the time. He came back to Souths after the ill-fated stint in rugby, and while he was still a top tier forward he was never the same as he was in 2014 and thus neither were Souths. He was still their best player, the face of the club, until the years of putting his body on the line began to catch up with him.
It happened so gradually it couldn't be seen until it had already happened, and Burgess was still an asset until his final days, but everyone has limits and Burgess found his. He tried to run from them, tried to break them like he broke everything else in his way, but nobody can play that way forever. Blood dries up, and bones break.
This year, Burgess didn't quite seem the same. He moved back to the second row, a position he always played well but which didn't have the same thunder as the middle. Wayne Bennett tried to use him as a sharp tool rather than a blunt object, punching through things rather than beating them into the shape he desired.
But when the whips were cracking and Souths needed something to arrest a season that was falling apart in their hands, Burgess dropped back into the trenches. For the Rabbitohs preliminary final clash with Canberra, what would become his final ever game, he was back at prop, and he went as hard as he could, which is the only way he's ever known.
But something was different. Burgess was no longer the strength which in days past moved heaven and earth. The mind was willing and the spirit strong, but the body couldn't keep up anymore. He was a veteran of so many battles, and each of them took a toll.
With eight minutes to go, and Souths trailing by four, Bennett took Burgess off the field, an unthinkable proposition once upon a time. At the time, nobody seemed to notice. It didn't seem like the end. Not a minute later, Josh Papalii barrelled through the heart of the Rabbitohs defence to score. There were new dogs in the yard now.
Burgess has never had a problem playing the rough side, and it got out of hand more than once. In his last two seasons he became a magnet for penalties, and sloppy ones at that. It seemed like some of them were born from frustration, an inability to simply impose his will on his opponents like he once did. At the time, these seemed like lapses of discipline, now they seem like Burgess lashing out at his own frustrations, reaching down for the things that carried him through everything and finding the well wasn't as deep as it once was.
Other forwards have risen up and taken his crown. Papalii and Jason Taumalolo, David Klemmer and Nelson Asofa-Solomona, Payne Haas and Addin Fonua-Blake, and even under Burgess' very nose, Cameron Murray. There was a point midway through this season when Murray surpassed Burgess as the Rabbitohs best forward. It didn't happen overnight, and nobody wanted to say it too loudly, but it happened all the same.
This is how it had to end. There was no way for Burgess to age gracefully because he cannot play any other way. Medical retirement is a cold and clinical term, and Burgess was never either of those things.
He either crashes or crashes through, and a predator can't become prey.
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