Russell Crowe – the Hollywood star and co-owner of South Sydney Rabbitohs – called him the “Sparkly Eyed Man”. For others, the nickname “SlammySam” sufficed. Regardless of the sobriquet, Sam Burgess was a player of legendary process in two hemispheres, the figurehead of four famous brothers who represented his country with distinction and led the Rabbitohs to glory in the National Rugby League.
But four years ago the forward’s spectacular playing career was cut short through injury and he entered the coaching ranks in Australia. Now Burgess has returned to his homeland to take his first senior head coaching role with Warrington Wolves, at the age of just 35, in one of the most engaging plotlines of the new Super League season.
Burgess has never led a top flight club before and is younger than some of his players at the Halliwell Jones Stadium. It is an undoubtedly risky appointment. However, after sacking head coach Daryl Powell last year and only scraping into the play-offs, and with a trophy drought that extends all the way back to 1955, the Wolves believe it is a gamble worth taking.
“Sam is an impressive, young and determined coach with a huge reputation within the sport,” Warrington chairman Stuart Middleton said.
“He was a leader for both club and country at the highest level throughout his playing career and is extremely well-driven to now make his mark as a coach in Super League. We firmly believe he is the right man to take the club forward.”
Warrington remain Super League’s bridesmaids, never the bride, since the competition started in 1996. While they have made it to Old Trafford several times, and are of one of England’s richest clubs, they have never left it victorious unlike rivals Wigan Warriors, St Helens and Leeds Rhinos.
Burgess played under some of rugby league’s best coaches, such as Wayne Bennett and Michael Maguire, and performed admirably on its biggest occasions. Tough, physical, imposing, he is known as someone who leads from the front, who inspires by his actions and for overcoming adversity.
But controversy has also followed closely the Liversedge product. There was an ill-fated cross code switch to rugby union with Bath and England, arrests for driving offences in Australia and he fought allegations of intimidation and common assault made by his ex-wife. All have added to the notoriety and profile of the man.
Hull Kingston Rovers coach Willie Peters describes the former Bradford Bulls star as “one of the best leaders I’ve seen”.
“He’s like Andy Farrell, one of the best leaders,” Peters told i. “There’s no doubt he’ll bring to coaching what he brought as a player, his leadership qualities, he’ll bring that to Warrington.
“When you play Warrington you know you’re going to play a team that’s physical and they’ll be far more physical next season.
“Sam’s going to bring some steel about them, and I wish them all the best. Sam always wanted to coach and he was always going to get into coaching. It’s good to have him in Super League.”
Josh Drinkwater will be one of the Wolves’ key figures this season. The Australian half-back has been impressed by Burgess’ influence.
“I can’t speak highly enough of Sam,” Drinkwater told i. “He’s very direct, you know where you stand with him.
“He’s really down to earth. He’s brought in all new attacking and defensive systems.
“Sam’s building the club, the proof in the pudding will be when we start playing games.”
The old sporting adage is that great players don’t always make great coaches. Garry Schofield at Huddersfield and Keiron Cunningham at St Helens can attest to that.
But there are enough stars turned star coaches – Ireland rugby union coach Farrell, Shaun Edwards, Pep Guardiola – to see some method in Warrington’s madness.
“No one can know if Sam Burgess and Warrington Wolves will work,” ex-Great Britain international and Warrington winger Brian Carney admits.
“No one could know if Daryl Powell would work and I’m sure immediately after Daryl’s appointment doubters would have been thin on the ground. Sam lacks coaching experience. Every day in the job addresses that.
“What he has in his favour is a presence and a stubborn will to succeed. Can he buy time through his force of personality to improve as a coach while also improving an underachieving side? Well if that’s the challenge it won’t be the biggest he’s faced in his life and overcome.”