Sam Burgess and England’s Centre Options

Published on: 14th August 2015

Filled Under: Analysis, International, World Cup 2015

Views: 1195

Sam Burgess – What’s all the Fuss About?

Slammin’ Sam.

His reputation walks before him and this breakdown should help clear the air and make an informed assessment of his skill set.

By winning the NRL in 2014, and the Clive Churchill medal for MotM in the final, the first non-Australian to do so, it’s safe to say Burgess has been making some serious waves.

Even without these accolades, Sam has had a highly impressive season. He was top in NRL for metres gained during the 2014 season, and also had the 2nd highest tally of carries and offloads. After recovering from fracturing his cheekbone and eye socket in the grand final, Burgess settled into life at Bath at outside centre. Towards the end of the season, the Bath coaches took him out of the easy life and moved him into the forwards, at blindside flanker.

However, contrary to reports and media speculation, this was always the plan. Before he broke into the 1st XV game for Bath, Sam had several run outs for the Bath second team at 6.

Pundits have been singing his praises since his transition to 6. He has won several Man of the Match awards and looked a completely different player than the early unsure centre. Sam himself has said he was really enjoying the new position, and Mike Ford has commented that he sees Sam as a flanker from now on, issue over.

That would have been the case, until out of the blue in July 2015 Stuart Lancaster stated that he was only considering Burgess at centre, because of his lack of lineout knowledge.

For someone who has produced his best performances at 6, and completely justified starting for Bath at flanker, it seemed bizarre to revert him back to centre. Has Stuart Lancaster seen something we haven’t?

Here are the stats for him this season at Centre and Flanker:

Position Minutes Played Tries Times run with ball Metres Made Clean Breaks Defenders Beaten Offloads Turnovers Conceded
Blindside Flanker 416 2 20 224 1 9 11 8
Outside Centre 528 1 40 127 3 13 18 9
Inside Centre 80 1 9 59 2 10 1 3

Source: ESPN Rugby Stats

There are a couple of things we can draw from this straight away:

  • Whilst having spent most of his time at Outside Centre, it looks the least impressive stat of the three.
  • His one game at Inside Centre, his second start for Bath, was against Wasps. The 10 defenders beaten in that game was the joint-highest total in a single game in the Aviva Premiership season, as the stats show had a great game. Was that a one off? Who knows. He played 13 mainly because Eastmond was at 12, while Joseph was away with England / rested.
  • Furthermore, he makes half the amount of runs at Flanker compared to outside centre, but makes almost twice the metres.

Why is Sam making more metres with fewer runs attempted at flanker? That could be down to several things:

Kick % Pass% Run%
4.80% 39.20% 56.00%

Source: ESPN Rugby Stats

These stats display Sam’s decision-making at outside centre: whether he kicked, passed or ran with the ball. With the kicking stat drastically lower, it rules out an entire facet of the game, and makes him easier to predict for defenders. Burgess is not known for his side step or his speed, his main strength is boshing into the opposition, and overpowering them. Whilst several players – including Jamie Roberts – have had success with this approach, it is easier to defend against; especially at pro level with no variation. If defences go low or double team this potentially one dimensional style of play, Burgess may run into trouble. If defences know what to expect, it makes Burgess easier to defend against, and this contributes to his lower stats.

However, it’s a different story at flanker. Making runs at flanker is much more spontaneous, and you can target certain defenders more easily from the ruck. You can also pick and go from the ruck, and spot a weakness. There’s less time for defenders to react, and with Sam’s initial pace and leg drive, he is able to get those extra few metres. Here are a couple of examples:

View post on imgur.com

Burgess is at his best dragging in as many tacklers onto him as he can, drawing in players and offloading the ball into space. In the above clip we see one of Sam’s biggest strengths is his ability to draw in a number of players to tackle him.

However, this stat should be taken with a pinch of salt. At flanker, he is more likely to return kicks from the opposition kickoffs, and this can often skew the metres made.

Sam’s offloading was one of his strongest attributes in Rugby League, and that hasn’t changed at all in Union. Sam was the 5th highest offloader in the premiership last season.

He’s able to carry on moving with 3-4 guys with him, until he’s eventually brought down, and it takes even more of the opposition to then clear him out, creating more opportunities for him and his team.

Part of the reason is because at flanker it’s more natural to him – more similar to league: crashing into 2-3 guys and grab those extra few metres.

Bath’s Attacking Pattern

One of Bath’s most used and successful moves was this diamond formation, where 2 centres and 2 backrows line up, waiting to receive the ball:

12

Here Ford has the ball – and he has four options of who to pass to. Nearest to him, Louw, is the crashball option. Behind him are Eastmond and Joseph, and the guy furthest away from Ford in the diamond formation is Houston.

Each of the 4 men involved in this move are running at full pace, expecting to receive the pass. This creates havoc for the defenses, as the defenders have to commit to tackling each individual. The aim is to isolate the 12, and to target him. Ford is instrumental in this, with his flat passes unlocking defenses, in this instance scoring a try.

In this instance, Ford passes to Eastmond,

13

To Houston,

14

who later offloads for Louw who scores the try.

BT Sport have done an excellent clip on what Bath do in attack:

watch the clip if you didn’t quite follow my explanation there, and want to see a bit more about it!

Now – Bath have used him heavily as a decoy runner – running flat alongside Ford and closest to him in this formation (Louw in the above pictures). His presence there is enough to make defenders panic. Why am I mentioning this? Well Sam’s presence is key to the success of this move, whether he receives the ball – and requires 2-3 men to take him down, it opens up opportunities in the next few phases of play. If he doesn’t receive the ball, he is often able to take out one of the defenders (legally), as they have to commit to him receiving the ball. So whilst the stats are great and show you some of the impacts and drawbacks to using Burgess, his lesser-known contributions are still key to how Bath attack – something to consider for England selectors.

The competitors:

With Lancaster seemingly ruling out Burgess at playing flanker for the World Cup, that leaves England with these centres left in the squad:

  • Brad Barritt
  • Jonathan Joseph
  • Luther Burrell
  • Kyle Eastmond (Out of squad)
  • Billy Twelvetrees
  • Sam Burgess
  • Henry Slade
  • Elliot Daly (didn’t make the training camp)

Of these, and from Lancaster’s previous selections, you would assume that these 2 would definitely be picked, barring injury:

  • Brad Barritt
  • Jonathan Joseph

Lancaster will be cutting 9 players from the squad next week, before the warm up games start. So inevitably some of these players won’t make the cut.

Update: Only Kyle Eastmond was dropped, so players that remain are:

  • Sam Burgess
  • Henry Slade
  • Luther Burrell
  • Billy Twelvetrees

Who do you take? Who do you allow the chance to showcase their abilities in the warm ups? Here are their stats for this season in the premiership, whilst playing at centre. I’ve looked at the two currently uncapped players, and Luther Burrell, as most people would assume Sam is directly competing with Burrell for a spot in the RWC squad as they have similar playing styles. Having said this there is now speculation that Slade and Burgess are both competing for the last centre spot in the squad.

Attacking Stats:

Player Minutes Tries(Assists) Number of Runs With Ball Metres Made Clean Breaks Def. Beaten Offloads
Burgess 608 2(0) 70 185 5 23 19
Slade 1200 4(3) 110 557 12 32 9
Burrell 1318 6(6) 127 563 14 34 12

Source: ESPN Rugby Stats

Burgess has half the playing time of Slade and Burrell at centre, but you can still see the differences. Both Slade and Burrell have made more metres, with Slade having had less attempted runs. We can also see that Burrell has the most influence with tries and setting up tries, and show he is the most potent try scoring and assisting threat of the three players.

We can break that down again to average metres made per run:

 Player Metres made per run average
Burgess 2.643
Slade 5.064
Burrell 4.433

Source: ESPN Rugby Stats

We can see that Burgess made the least average metres, with Slade sitting pretty at the top.

Next, let’s take a look at what each player does with ball in hand – their decision making to either: kick, run or pass the ball.

 Player Kick % Pass% Run%
Burgess 4.80% 39.20% 56.00%
Slade 29% 32.50% 38.50%
Burrell 5.56% 40.17% 54.27%

Source: ESPN Rugby Stats

Burgess and Burrell are very similar in this respect, in that they prefer to pass and run with the ball. Slade, on the other hand, is completely different. At 13, he has a much more varied game, and provides more unpredictability for defenses with his decision-making. If England wants an extra playmaker at 13, then Slade is the man. His ability to play second phase first reciever is a huge aspect of Slades game at Exeter.

Defensive Stats:

 Player Minutes Turnovers

Conceded

Tackles Made Missed Tackles Tackle % Success
Burgess 608 12 52 8 86.67%
Slade 1200 25 103 25 80.47%
Burrell 1318 22 82 31 72.57%

Source: ESPN Rugby Stats

All three have very similar amount of turnovers conceded once you take into account that Burgess has half the playing time. However, this is where Burgess edges Slade and Burrell – his tackle success rate. You don’t really earn the nickname Slammin’ Sam for being soft in defense, as Ben Jacobs finds out twice in under 20 seconds:

(Note: Both times the ref holds out his arm – it’s for a knock on in the tackle, not a penalty against Burgess)

If you want a solid defensive centre that can put in the big hits, Sam is your guy. He showed this yet again against the French making several big hits and taking players backwards.

Conclusion:

Lancaster has a few choices to make before the world cup games: Who will he take? Some of the perks to these players is their ability to play different positions:

  • Slade – 10,12,13
  • Burgess – 6, 12, 13
  • Burrell – 12, 13

Now this is very useful as unless the players are ahead of them are injured, then this might become their main selling point for including them in the squad.

With Slade, you get a backup playmaker. He is a flyhalf come centre that is more than confident kicking the ball, and can goal kick as well. His decision making skills are top draw and his running game poses a big threat for defenders.

Burgess can be used as a centre/flanker backup option on the bench, allowing for more forwards to be picked, but can also slot into centres comfortably. The name Sam Burgess sucks in defenders before he has even touched the ball. This can be easily utilised by Lancaster.

Burrell has been in the England setup for longer and this should count towards his pick. His try scoring and assists would suggest he is the biggest attacking threat of the 3, however his defensive record is the weakest. This is something that on the world stage will come under a lot of pressure and Lancaster has to know that he is up to the challenge. Will his lack of versatility covering different positions cost him or will being a specialist pay off?

Next, its up to Stuart Lancaster to decide which option he wants to take with him to the World Cup.

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