By STEVE MASCORD
SOMETIME soon, maybe next year, Sam, Luke, Tom and George Burgess will become the first set of four brothers to play together in a premiership match since 1910.
And the tale of how it came to pass will go back much further than you think, to late June 2004.
Chris Caisley, then the chairman of Super League club Bradford, sits down with former Great Britain five-eighth Iestyn Harris and agrees to bring him back to rugby league from Welsh rugby union for an estimated one million pounds over four seasons. “I am delighted that we have been able to recruit a player of Iestyn’s calibre and standing,” Caisley says in a statement dated July 2.
Harris says he is returning to the north of England for family reasons. Neither he nor Caisley makes any reference tp the fact that Leeds claim an option on Harris’ services should he return to rugby league.
The decision to sign Harris, according to the club’s later administration but not according to Caisley, would drive the Bulls to the brink of permanent closure.
And it would send a boy who was just 12 years old when it happened on a journey that began on the set of a Hollywood motion picture and ended in Sydney. His name is Sam Burgess and before long his brothers Luke, George and Tom and mother Julie would join him on the other side of the world.
But if “I Harris” had not been scrawled on that contract nine years ago, it’s possible members of Sydney’s most famous English family would still be going about their lives in west Yorkshire, as they were at the time.
Over the four years from 2004, Leeds pursued legal action against Harris for not honouring his obligation to rejoin them and Bradford for inducing him to breach his contract. Caisley stepped down from running the Bulls – the most successful team of Super League’s first 10 years – in 2006.
According to the next chairman, Peter Hood, the six figure payout to Leeds seriously gored the Bulls. Caisley denies this – but it did leave the club in serious need of cash.
So when Souths came knocking in late 2009 with an offer to pay a transfer fee for Sam Burgess – by then, 21 – they weren’t in a position to turn them away.
“I was friends with Chris Caisley from my time in Super League, when he was running Bradford and I was at Hull,” Souths CEO Shane Richardson explains.
“He’s the one who brought Sam to my attention. I watched him play, I could see that he was something special.
“Steve Menzies was at Bradford at the time and he had been speaking to Sam about going to Manly. He was about to go there.
“At the time, Russell (Crowe) was over in the UK on a movie set. I told him ‘we’ve got to move on this kid’. He watched him in a couple of matches on television and agreed with me.
“I got Sam’s phone number, Russell called him up and they took him and his mum down to the movie set for a chat.
“Bradford wanted a transfer fee. Yes, I knew they were in financial trouble and needed the money. Transfer fees are not covered by the NRL salary cap so we paid it and Sam became a South Sydney player.”
At the time, the idea that all four Burgesses would end up at Souths was fanciful indeed – although Sam had certainly raised it with the club. Luke, who played for Harlequins, Doncaster and Leeds, was not setting the world on fire at the Rhinos.
“There was an opportunity there because he was out of the first team at Leeds and we had some injuries,” Richardson recalls.
“He came out here, got a chance because of another injury, and ended up playing 18 games for us. It worked out well.”
But snaring George, who’s this year’s Burgess flavour of the month, and Tom was another thing altogether. George, who wasn’t even a Super League player when he joined the red and greens, was always keen to try his luck in Australia.
His twin brother Tom, however, took some convincing before linking up with the Bunnies this year. He played 46 first-team games with Bradford.
The question is, are the Burgesses all at Souths on merit? Coach Michael Maguire says they are.
“I first met Sam overseas, before I came back from Wigan,” he says. “I had heard about him but not met him and I was very impressed with him.
“Now, George, when I first met him he was a giant. You look at him now and the way he’s getting around the field and there’s no comparison with what he was like then.
“That’s a result of the small things people don’t see. They are here to play rugby league and they work hard.
“I don’t necessarily treat them as brothers around the place. I treat them like any other members of staff, although there are positives to having brothers in the club.”
The Burgesses aren’t on a media ban, as such, but there is a Souths strategy at work aimed at minimising their profile. When you look at the size of them, that’s no mean feat.
Sam fronts up at all in media opportunities, Luke is out indefinitely with a shoulder injury, George says very little and Tom is being discouraged from doing interviews until he makes first grade.
The last time four brothers played first grade together was 103 years ago, when Ray, Roy, Rex and Bernard Norman played for Annandale. It’s fair to say they may have all just shown up to training together one Tuesday night, rather than been put through the rigorous filtering system employed by pro clubs these days.
“Family is one of the four pillars of this club,” says Richardson. “The others are passion, uniqueness and innovation.
“Having four brothers at this club really makes it like a family. It shows people how we feel about family.
“And now their mother is here too, working around the club.”
Sitting in the background is Caisley. He recently attempted to wrest back control of the Bulls as they floundered under enormous financial pressure before a new owner was found.
Now concentrating on his legal business, Caisley has recently found himself writing to the local paper to defend his reputation against the suggestion his Harris deal ruined what was once a model Super League franchise.
But his role in the Burgesses’ success is a source of pride.
“He isn’t a manager, he is a mentor to the boys – they trust him with their lives,” says Richardson. “It’s similar to the way Russell feels – not like a father but almost like a father.
“I know Chris is proud of what the boys have achieved and I know they are grateful for how he has helped them achieve it.”
When it finally happens and Sam, Luke, George and Tom Burgess run out together in the cardinal and myrtle, it’s to be hoped Caisley gets enough notice to be there. Regardless of how the history of the Bradford Bulls is written, his impact on a family that lost a father and husband to motor neuron disease a decade ago has been profoundly positive.
As for the rest of us, don’t be surprised if Maguire springs the historic moment on the wider world an hour before kick off, to save the boys from a media circus.
The coach laughs. “That’s a fair chance,” he says.
Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK