Thomas Burgess shines without siblings but isn’t in their shadow

South Sydney Rabbitohs prop defends older brother Sam after disappointing World Cup

Tom Burgess (L) with brothers Luke and George. Photograph: Getty

Tom Burgess (L) with brothers Luke and George. Photograph: Getty

 

The phone rang late on Sunday night and the voice was unmistakable. “Hello mate, how are you?” Thomas Burgess asked, as if he was calling to find out about my weekend rather than to discuss his immense contribution to England’s defeat of New Zealand a few hours earlier. On a momentous night for rugby league, as the World Cup travails of England’s counterparts in union were offset by a significant victory for Burgess and his team, the young prop sounded as composed as he had been when we met three days before.

Then, over lunch at St George’s Park, where England were deep in preparation for the first of three Tests against New Zealand, Burgess had spoken in compelling detail about a wide array of subjects – stretching from the future of his brother, Sam, as speculation intensifies about his possible move back to Sydney and rugby league, to the death of their father from motor neurone disease when they were teenagers.

Burgess also talked about confronting homophobia in sport – as well as the vision of Russell Crowe in signing all four Burgess brothers, including Luke and Thomas’s twin, George, to the South Sydney Rabbitohs as a prelude to the club winning the Grand Final in 2014 on a night when Sam was inspirational, despite a fractured cheekbone.

Yet while Burgess, all 6ft 5in and near 19st of him, devoured two bowls of food, I was struck most last week by the 23-year-old’s assessment of Sunday’s first Test against New Zealand in personal terms. “I’m really excited,” Burgess said. “This is probably the biggest game of my career so far, playing for England against the No1 team in the world. I don’t feel I am being overshadowed by my brothers but I want to show everyone I’m also a leader.

“At first I was disappointed, with Sam not being available, when George needed surgery and Luke got injured. But then I started thinking about it differently and realised it’s a good opportunity for me to step out of that Burgess brothers’ facade. I’ve really enjoyed training with players and they’re getting my name right. Usually, if both George and I are here, they get us mixed up, so it’s been good. It’s been refreshing.”

It was just as refreshing to watch Burgess rise from the bench on Sunday and produce a performance as imposing in defence as it was in attack. England’s coach, Steve McNamara, said afterwards that “Tom was incredible tonight. He should be one of the stories of the game”.

On the phone, being driven back from Hull to Manchester, Burgess was as keen to deflect attention from himself as he was to protect his big brother Sam. He did admit, however: “I’m happy with all my carries and having no misses in defence. But we’re already thinking about playing New Zealand again on Saturday at the Olympic Stadium. We know we’re going to have to improve because it’s like a final for us. If we win it, we’ve got the series.

“We’re all hoping we can get those union supporters, who would have been at Twickenham at the World Cup, down to the Olympic Stadium and show them that league is a really good game. One of our aims is to build the sport in the south and this feels like a massive chance – to win a series against the world’s No1 team in London.”

Burgess is obviously smart enough not to say anything on the record that might make life difficult for his brother. But he is still interesting, whether assessing the euphoric response Sam’s return to Sydney would generate or considering the flak he took as a union novice parachuted into England’s rugby union World Cup squad.

“I don’t know a great deal about union but from what I saw it didn’t look like Sam did much wrong. He was hard done by with some of the comments which made him a scapegoat. But there are a lot of upset people in union because England didn’t do as well as they should have done. They like to point the finger at someone and the easiest option was to point it at the new feller. Sam knows it’s their job to make a story line. But he got treated unfairly really.”

Burgess would love to have Sam back alongside him, George, Luke [who now plays for Manly] and their mum, Julie, in Sydney. “For me on a personal note it would be fantastic – and it would be great for South Sydney to have someone of Sam’s ability and presence again. But there are a lot of hoops you need to jump through to sort out a deal like that. If it could happen, there would be a lot of happy people in Sydney.”

Sam Burgess’s last game for South Sydney was the Grand Final in October 2014 when he broke his cheekbone in the opening minute – but still went on to become the first non-Australian to win the Clive Churchill medal for man of the match. It was also the first time in 43 years that the Rabbitohs were crowned NRL champions – after their 30-6 defeat of the Canterbury Bulldogs.

“It was massive, mate,” the younger Burgess says, “and nothing like I’ve ever experienced before. Sydney went crazy for a few weeks because people had lived so long without Souths winning. For us, coming from England, to be part of it was so special. Souths are such a historic club. You’re in the moment when it’s happening but when you look back you think: ‘We did something pretty cool.’

“I came on early when George got knocked out and our other front-rower went off. So I played a lot of minutes in that Grand Final and did a lot of work, so I was really pleased. It was one of the best games I ever had. I also knew Sam was badly injured. I came on after 15 minutes and Sam was still dazed. I went up to him and he said: ‘Look, Tom, I need you here. You’re going to have to cover me in bits of this game.’ I said: ‘Mate, I’ve got your back.’ I still get emotional about it now because it brings back so clearly how much courage he had.”

All four Burgess brothers were in the Souths squad – but only Luke did not feature in the Grand Final. “Luke warmed up with us – but he just missed out. It was pretty heart-wrenching for him. But without turning it into a cliche we felt we were all brothers at Souths. It was [the actor and Souths owner] Russell Crowe’s vision when he signed us all. He was the one who said: ‘I want all four brothers at the club.’ Of course the coach has to like us and the CEO has to make it happen – but it was Russell’s vision of instilling a brotherhood at the club. He did that in bringing us four brothers into the club. But we had to work hard to make it happen.”

One of the most touching moments for the family was when all four played for the first time in the same South Sydney team against Wests Tigers in August 2013. It was more than 100 years since another quartet of siblings, the Norman brothers, had played alongside each other in an NRL game. “What made it even more special,” Burgess said, “was that our mum was persuaded to join us on the pitch after the game. There was a stat saying she was the first woman to make it on to a pitch in the NRL for many years. We got a cool photo with mum.”

Burgess became understandably nostalgic when he remembered childhood holidays in France with his parents. His dad, Mark, was a builder and his mother is a language teacher, now working in Sydney, and they could both speak French. Burgess slipped into fluent French for a few sentences – but pointed out that his mother can speak five languages. Their father died when the twins were 15, Sam 18 and Luke 20.

When I interviewed Sam in 2013 he remembered their dad’s last days in poignant detail – explaining how he and his father used to count the steps when he carried him up to bed. Their dad also loved being wheeled around Morrisons by his boys and sitting in their conservatory so he could listen to the rain falling against the glass.

“I have so many memories, too,” Thomas said. “We grew up with our dad playing rugby and every time I take the field I think of him. We used to have drills with him out in the back garden but one of the most powerful memories was how strong he was in that last period. He instilled that determination in us. On his gravestone it says Our Legacy Will Live Strong. We remember how strong he was even though motor neurone is one of the worst diseases.

“Sam was an incredibly strong character when my dad was deteriorating. He was his main carer and while doing that he was breaking into the first team at Bradford. We looked up to Sam as our hero, really. To lose your dad at 15 is tough but our special bond as brothers helped us.”

There was something special about Thomas Burgess earlier this year when he spoke out against homophobia. “It just needed someone to come out and say: ‘Look, there’s no problem with gay people in sport.’ I think it’s perfectly normal. We’re living in the 21st century. One or two were negative online but the majority were really positive and I was really pleased – especially for a lot of my friends who are gay. There shouldn’t be any discrimination. So I stuck up for same-sex marriage and that’s still illegal in Sydney – which is crazy.

“It was a good chance for me to say there shouldn’t be any homophobia. My brothers and I were lucky. We got educated. My mum was a teacher and two of her friends taught at the same school. They were a lesbian couple but they were our aunties. We have fond memories of them. They would make perfectly good mothers and I don’t see why they should be stopped living ordinary family lives.”

We had moved a long way from a traditional league interview – but the ferocious will and force of Burgess on the rugby field was evident all over again last Sunday night as he helped dominate the New Zealand pack. “I’m a bit sore, mate,” Burgess laughed down the phone afterwards, “but that’s usual.”

His mind had already turned to the future – to Saturday’s game in London and to Sam’s wedding in Australia next month. “The whole family are going to be back together again for Christmas,” he said, “and it’s going to be great. But it will feel even better if we’ve won the series against New Zealand.”

The suspicion lingers that, next year, South Sydney will be lit up by a trio of Yorkshire brothers again – and that Thomas might emerge as the most interesting Burgess of them all.

(Guardian service)

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