Burgess makes England league return with head held high

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Sam Burgess' return to international rugby league ended in defeat on Saturday, but his own story is one of triumph in the face of adversity.

The 27-year-old captained England in their agonising 17-16 Four Nations loss to reigning champions New Zealand following a hiatus from the sport in which he came under intense scrutiny.

The tale of Burgess' time in rugby union varies wildly from one telling to the next, but beware the tendentious narrative of some of the sport's supposed aficionados.

From the moment his switch to Bath was announced in 2014, the knives were being sharpened and his reputation still bears the scars of repeated attacks.

He has been labelled a failure, a quitter and much worse besides, as union acolytes have sought to cite him as a prime example of how code-hoppers cannot grasp the nuances of the 15-man game.

And yet Burgess has maintained that his brief foray into a brave new world was not a failure, but a further demonstration of his talent and resilience.

It is a claim sneered at by his detractors, but one which holds up under closer inspection.

Burgess made a bold move to a new sport and carried upon his broad shoulders a sizeable weight of expectation. 

He flourished at Bath, earning a call-up for the 2015 World Cup on merit, having finished the domestic campaign at flanker.

England coach Stuart Lancaster, though, drafted him in at centre and added to the already burdensome task facing Burgess.

It is here that the narratives begin to diverge more dramatically. 

The doubts, which were present and articulated from the outset, were not without justification.

Pundits had warned Burgess may not be ready for the international stage and particularly not as a remedy to England's midfield problems.

Not all of the cynics were union-loving snobs, but the most vocal could not credibly defend themselves against such an assertion.

When the time for talking stopped and the action commenced, Burgess might reasonably have felt he had more to prove than his team-mates.

England kicked off their home tournament by claiming a bonus-point win over Fiji, with Burgess featuring for the final quarter of the match.

But things began to unravel in the next game, when Wales overcame a 10-point deficit and a string of injuries to condemn the hosts to a costly last-gasp loss.

For 70 minutes England had looked set for a Twickenham triumph, but Burgess was withdrawn and Lancaster's side capitulated. The two were not unrelated.

A tournament-ending loss to Australia followed, for which Burgess was largely a spectator, as England became the first host nation in World Cup history to exit in the pool stage.

The thrashing of Uruguay was as irrelevant as any World Cup game could be. Lancaster's fate was sealed, not so much a scapegoat as a victim of his own evident and humiliating failure at a tournament England were thought to be contenders to win.

Burgess - dropped for the final match - was wrapped up in that same failure. Seen as unworthy, it was felt Lancaster - now viewed with scarce affection - had fast-tracked him in a move that defied common sense, committing a grave error in sidelining Luther Burrell.

The anti-Burgess brigade had a field day when his return to league was announced just a few weeks after the World Cup shambles. This, they cried, was proof positive that neither his head nor heart were ever in it. A mercenary, if ever there was one.

And so it became that perhaps the most popular telling of the Burgess story had him painted as a charlatan.

No wonder he went back to the open arms of rugby league, where this weekend, even in a losing effort, his immense skill was apparent.

Union's loss is most certainly league's gain.