By STEVE MASCORD
ENGLAND fullback Sam Tomkins says absent team-mate and international player of the year Sam Burgess is leaving for rugby union in search of a “buzz” more than a tougher sporting challenge.
Rugby league’s Four Nations kicks off in Brisbane today in somewhat curious circumstances for the 13-man game, when England takes on Samoa and Australia meets New Zealand before an anticipated Suncorp Stadium crowd of up to 50,000.
England’s Burgess, New Zealand’s Sonny Bill Williams and Australia’s Jarryd Hayne each played a full season of NRL but have chosen other sports in preference to the international series.
For Burgess and Williams it’s rugby union, for Hayne it’s training alone in Los Angeles in the hope of winning an NFL contract. Samoa’s best player at the 2013 World Cup, Anthony Milford was in Australia’s train-on squad but when he missed the cut, became unavailable for the island nation even though rules would have permitted him to play.
But New Zealand Warrior Tomkins – himself a rugby union target – says league is not under siege.
“I think the NRL’s a great stage to play on,” he told The Guardian.
“The reason I left the Super League is I wanted to challenge myself on a bigger stage and a tougher competition.
“Sam Burgess, he’s not going and playing in a tougher competition. He’s going to a competition that’s not as tough. But the idea of playing in the rugby union World Cup … England rugby union, they can play against Fiji and fill Twickenham with 80,000 people.
“That’s the buzz there.”
Burgess inspired South Sydney to its first premiership victory in 43 years earlier this month. England or Great Britain last beat Australia in a series the year before Souths’ previous title, during the 1970 Ashes series.
Members of the England squad were reminded how long the Australian epoch has run when the 1994 Kangaroos were special guests at the Player of the Year Awards luncheon on Thursday and highlights of that series were played at length on a big screen.
For Sam Burgess’ brothers, Souths giants George and Tom, the opportunity is there to break enough droughts in the space of two month to be accredited as rain-bringing mystics.
“We’re all fully aware of how long it has been,” said Tomkins.
Winger Ryan Hall added: “It’s been 44 years. It might be unknown this side of the world but we talk about it every year, it going longer and longer since we last won something.
“It means a great deal to us. Hopefully this is the year. Hopefully next year, it won’t be 45 years, it will be one year.
“This bunch of players we’ve got, I think we deserve some sort of recognition on the international scale. There’ve been some new guys come into the squad this year but the core of the group is quite similar. We’ve been together so long, we know each other so well so I think it’s about time we got something.”
Captain Sean O’Loughlin’s thigh injury means James Graham will lead England on Saturday. This marks a measure of redemption for the Canterbury Bulldogs prop, who was omitted from coach Steve McNamara’s first World Cup team a year ago due to off-field ill-discipline.
“It was frustrating more than anything but … I’ve moved on,” said Graham, who now expects O’Loughlin to be skipper permanently and said he did not harbour ambitions regarding the position.
At a match-eve media conference, McNamara said Sam Burgess has presented the team with their jerseys and that he was not taking seriously reports linking George Burgess to rugby union club Gloucester.
The Samoa coach Matt Parish said he rated Tomkins as equally dangerous to any fullback in the game, and that had spent plenty of time schooling his men in how to contain England’s young hookers, Canberra-bound Josh Hodgson and Super League Man of Steel Daryl Clark.
Samoa have been hit with disciplinary problems of their own this week, with Reni Maituia, Tautai Moga and Sauaso Sue fined $10,000 each and dropped for their involvement in a brawl outside a Brisbane nightclub.
Filed for: THE GUARDIAN