Mehrtens: Code switchers, who will make RWC?

Last updated 05:00 04/09/2014
TOUGH CHANGE: England’s Sam Burgess, left, and Kiwi Sonny Bill Williams shake hands after the Rugby League World Cup semifinal last year. The superstars could be squaring off against each other in the Rugby World Cup next year following their impending code switches.
TOUGH CHANGE: England’s Sam Burgess, left, and Kiwi Sonny Bill Williams shake hands after the Rugby League World Cup semifinal last year. The superstars could be squaring off against each other in the Rugby World Cup next year following their impending code switches.

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Living in Sydney means it's hard to escape the hype of the NRL.

OPINION: And there has been no shortage of it this week ahead of tonight's big clash between bitter rivals South Sydney and the Roosters.

What has been interesting is that most of the hype has centred on two of the game's superstars who are about to quit the code to chase World Cup success in rugby.

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If you had a dollar for every tree slain in the name of newsprint about the duel between Sonny Bill Williams and Sam Burgess, you could probably afford to live next door to either of those blokes in Sydney's elite eastern suburbs.

With both players off to rugby at the end of the NRL season, tonight's match is being touted as potentially the last confrontation in league between the pair (both teams have made the playoffs so they could still meet in the finals).

The Aussie media are speculating that the next time the pair face each other will be in rugby's World Cup.

But how sure a bet is that?

I think SBW will be there, although I question the route (I'll come back to that). Burgess, I'm not so sure about.

The guy is talented, undoubtedly. The Englishman is a hard-working, hard-running behemoth in the 13-a-side game. His game stats in league are hugely impressive.

Sam is off to ply his trade at the Bath club where apparently he is being lined up initially as a second five-eighth.

It's the same jersey many want him to wear for England at the World Cup, and - of course - it's the same rugby position considered as best suited to Williams.

It's early days but I know which guy I would be on to make a better fist of the role at the World Cup.

Burgess is a complete newcomer to rugby. He has never played it.

The No 12 jersey has developed into one of the most critical decision-making roles in rugby, on both attack and defence.

In particular the phase-play requirements on attack - organising support runners, feeding information to the 10 and distributing accurately - mean that it is very difficult to play the position without having a good feel for the game.

And one season in the English Premiership will hardly provide enough experience to take this responsibility on at international level.

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The Israel Folau experiment has shown what is required to successfully integrate a league player into a rugby backline.

Folau was a little lost early on as he struggled to use his undeniable talent from the wing while learning to read the play.

But this year, with more rugby under his belt and especially with a Waratahs game plan that favoured simplicity and attacking enjoyment, he has developed into a dangerous weapon who gets involved more easily.

And operating at the back allows him to work in tandem with his wingers, spreading the burden of organising others.

In my view, the failed Benji Marshall experiment reinforces that.

For whatever reasons, Marshall was not able to ease back into the sport and find his feet.

I would have loved to see him have more time at fullback to get the feel for the game, before ultimately moving closer to the action to bring his skills to more prominence.

Then there's defence. Nobody can doubt Burgess' courage and strength, and ability to make massive hits.

While at times second five-eighth is required to make big front-on tackles against loose forwards coming round or midfielders hitting back, more often than not the No 12 is having to make defensive decisions with multiple runners and dummy runners coming into that zone - requiring awareness, agility and acceleration.

I'm not questioning Burgess' physical ability or desire, merely saying that it's unfair to put a guy in that position and have him unsure of his role. It's a huge ask, and hesitancy is one of the worst enemies for a test player.

As for Williams, I'm sure he'll return from league better again.

I can't say I know the code well at all, but it seems that each time he hops the fence he brings something a little better to the other code.

I thought that he looked better in league this time round with the timing of some of his runs and tackles, for example.

That may of course be just his natural progression rather than anything he got from rugby, but it certainly appears that he learns quickly from his experiences and is able to apply what he learns to the benefit of his next employer.

I'm glad he's back in rugby, although I think the union is on pretty dangerous ground allowing him to tour immediately with the All Blacks.

The reason is obvious, and Steve Hansen was clearly desperate to re-integrate SBW as soon as possible, but it does mean that the union's bedrock selection policy is eroded.

- Stuff

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