By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE, April 30 (Reuters) - Having experienced the giddy heights of a World Cup and a stint with French giants Toulouse, Luke Burgess has devoted himself to the more humble pursuit of helping the Melbourne Rebels quietly gain respect in a rugby backwater.
On second glance, however, the 30-year-old scrumhalf and the Super Rugby strugglers appear a match made in heaven, with both parties favouring hard work over headlines.
In an off-season clean-out, the Rebels showed their commitment to substance over style, dumping the talented but troubled James O'Connor and letting his fellow Wallabies back Kurtley Beale depart for the New South Wales Waratahs.
Burgess ditched his career in France a year early to head back to Australia, in part to be closer to his wife's family and perhaps keep the door ajar for a Wallabies recall.
In contrast to other Wallabies-laden sides in the Australian conference of Super Rugby, the Rebels, in their fourth season in the tournament, boast only two players to have donned the gold jersey - Burgess and his captain Scott Higginbotham.
The lack of star power might be emblematic of the Rebels' struggles to carve out a niche in a city swamped by no less than 10 Australian Rules football teams, but Burgess wears the team's relative obscurity as a badge of honour.
"We don't need to go around trying to be famous or trying to get media attention," he told Reuters in a telephone interview.
"We do what we do as a rugby club and that's being part of a community.
"My team mates are all stars in my book."
Under new management and a new coach in Tony McGahan, a no-nonsense assistant to former Australia coach Robbie Deans, the Rebels have worked hard to repair their brand both on and off the field.
Disciplinary problems reached a nadir last year on tour in South Africa when utility back Beale came to blows with fellow Rebels in an alcohol-fuelled punch-up on a team bus following a record defeat by the Durban-based Sharks.
The negative press has stopped, however, replaced by a cautious optimism among the small band of Melbourne rugby writers.
Though the Rebels have won only three games from their eight this season, there has been no recurrence of the one-sided thrashings of seasons past.
A defence that once shipped tries has been tightened, while the forward pack has shown themselves capable against the southern hemisphere competition's best.
WORLD CUP AMBITION
"The breakdown work has been pretty thorough under Tony," said Burgess. "He's an expert on that and he prides himself on preparing his players well in that area."
Despite donning the Wallabies jersey 37 times and earning a bronze medal at the 2011 World Cup, Burgess has been largely condemned as a stand-in man between two of Australia's finest scrumhalves in George Gregan and Queensland Reds number nine Will Genia.
Lately, he has played second fiddle to the talented Nic Stirzaker at the Rebels, relieving the 23-year-old from the bench.
If stung by the demotion after a bright start to the season, Burgess hides it well, and says he still harbours ambitions of wearing a gold jersey again with the World Cup in Britain begging next year.
"Absolutely, everyone should be aspiring to a Wallabies jersey," he said. "It would be an honour.
"I'm ready to go, no worries fitness-wise... There's always aspects of my game I'm trying to improve. You're never a finished article.
"I need to worry about just performing on the field and being a part of victory in the end."
With a three-test series against France coming up in June, Burgess will need to a few stand-out performances to catch Wallabies coach Ewen McKenzie's eye, with ACT Brumbies scrumhalf Nic White tracking as the biggest challenger to Genia's hold on the number nine jersey.
The quintessential team man, Burgess was reluctant to look past Friday, however, when the Rebels host the competition-leading Sharks.
Though still yet to crack a win overseas, Melbourne have won six of their last seven games at their home AAMI Park, including their last two against South African opponents.
"It's going to be a massive challenge," said Burgess, who refused to rule his team out of the playoffs race, despite the mountainous task ahead.
"They're very strong, a very balanced team and it's exciting playing such quality opposition.
"We fancy ourselves against everyone. We go into games to win. We don't worry about what journalists think or whatever other people might think." (Editing by John O'Brien)