‘In that time of my life I was lost’: Sam Burgess opens up on his personal issues

Sam Burgess - Sam Burgess interview: ‘In that time of my life I was lost’
Sam Burgess take his first senior head coaching job at Warrington Wolves - Getty Images/Olly Hassell

Sam Burgess stands in the entrance of a hospitality room at the Halliwell Jones Stadium. High, wide and similar dimensions to the doorway, he looks like he should be playing for Warrington Wolves this weekend when Super League kicks off rather than coaching them.

It is from the stands, though, that Burgess will be making his presence felt as a new chapter in his larger-than-life story begins at Catalans Dragons on Saturday.

Never afraid of putting himself out there, one of English rugby’s most charismatic and controversial figures has moved on from his assistant’s job at South Sydney Rabbitohs – the NRL club where he became a superstar – to return home and give head coaching a go.

No matter that he is just 35.

“Actually I was 34 when I got the job,” corrected Burgess, who is younger than Warrington’s full-back Stefan Ratchford.

“I was finishing up at Souths and this just came up. A lot of people advised me to take a bit more time but Wayne Bennett told me: ‘Go do it. It’s the only way you’re going to learn’. It was a sliding doors moment.

“It wasn’t a plan but it was a great opportunity outside my comfort zone. I wanted to be a head coach in the long run and I thought this was just a great fit. It is such a great club to be part of.”

Sam Burgess - Sam Burgess interview: ‘In that time of my life I was lost’
Burgess is the youngest head coach in the professional game - Getty Images/Steve Flynn

The morning we meet, he has been training with the team. He still does some running and gym sessions but contact is a no no. The Slammin’ Sam days are long gone.

‘I really struggled without any purpose or a drive’

It is four-and-a-half years since Burgess retired because of a shoulder injury, a period in his life which has been characterised by chaos.

His initial venture into coaching with the Rabbitohs stalled when he was stood down after a blizzard of damaging accusations from his former wife Phoebe and father-in-law Mitchell Hooke while he fought to clear his name.

He describes the situation he found himself in as ‘horrific’, with a conviction for intimidation of Hooke eventually overturned and no charges laid over Phoebe’s domestic abuse claims. Burgess was however found guilty of driving with cocaine in his system after which he spent four weeks in a rehab clinic.

It was a juncture in which he admits he felt rudderless and adrift.

“When I first retired I had a rough time. I did not have a purpose or a drive and I really struggled with that,” he said.

“For such a big part of my life, for so many years, I had that sense of belonging to a group and having a responsibility. Almost instantly that had gone.

“In that time when I was away from the game I was just totally lost. I don’t find many things hard but I found that period very hard to manage. I didn’t make great decisions.

“I didn’t know how to manage it emotionally. I didn’t understand how I was feeling. It’s something I wasn’t equipped for. I had to go and spend a lot of time working on myself and understanding those feelings and emotions which young men really don’t do a lot of.”

Trouble revisited Burgess a fortnight ago when he had to appear on a 3am video link to another Australian court to defend himself after being accused of driving on a suspended licence. Those charges were dismissed.

“It’s all done and dusted now. Whether I was targeted or not, I don’t know but finally common sense has prevailed,” he said.

“I had already made a fresh start with my life anyway over there but this is a fresh opportunity with responsibility and purpose.”

There are complications to his switch of hemispheres. While he has his new partner, Lucy, and baby Robbie, in tow his two children from his first marriage, Poppy, 7, and Billy, 5, are back in Australia.

“The only thing that has made me wish I was back there is my family. I miss the children,” he said.

“Everything else is great. I’ve enjoyed absolutely everything about being back from the cold weather, to changing house, to the different lifestyle.”

It is Burgess’s first time living in the UK since his tumultuous year in rugby union in which he was made the scapegoat for England crashing out of the 2015 World Cup at the pool stage.

Sam Burgess of England looks rueful at the 2015 Rugby World Cup
England had a disastrous 2015 World Cup on home soil, exiting at the group stages - Reuters/Stefan Wermuth

His reflections on that time are more rose-tinted than many might expect.

“I actually had a great time in rugby union and had some success. People might laugh at that but I played in a Premiership final for Bath against a ‘heavily-paid’ Saracens team and I got into a World Cup squad. I had to work my backside off to do that,” he said.

“I represented my country and I felt like I gave something to the game of rugby union. I guess a lot of people will disagree with that but when you really break it down, I was happy with it.

“The two warm-up games I played we won, then in the World Cup I played against Fiji and we won and then I started against Wales. After 70 minutes we were winning. Then I came off the field and we lost!

“That game against Wales seems to be the sticking point of my time in union for a lot of people but I learned so much.

“I was surrounded by some great coaches who have gone on to have amazing careers post that World Cup.

“Stuart Lancaster, at Racing, is probably now the coach in world rugby, Andy Farrell is the current Lions coach, Mike Catt is with Ireland and Graham Rowntree is with Munster. They are top coaches and I took on board everything they said.

“I did love the game of rugby union. I still do.”

‘Andy Farrell would be a great role model’

Might he one day contemplate a Farrell-style switch to coaching union?

“Never say never,” he said. “Although it wasn’t for a long period in time I really dived into understanding the game and I got to see it from both sides - as a forward and back.

“Andy would be a great role model but he’s a hard comparison for anyone. He is a great icon and he’s a pretty special guy.

“Besides, I’m only in my first year as a rugby league head coach.”

Burgess takes on an enticing job at underperforming Warrington who were nursed to a mid-table finish last season by director of rugby Gary Chambers after the sacking of Daryl Powell.

The aspirations – the public ones anyway – are deliberately manageable.

“I should hope we’ll be competitive. All I’m asking for really early on is to get out there and compete and have some fun within the constraints of our structure,” he said.

“We have spent a lot of time on basic skills just because they allow you to make better decisions under pressure. Hopefully you’ll see that in the performances.

“I’ve been really impressed so far. I’m aware we haven’t played a competitive game yet but I feel the team is in a balanced place and we can be honest with each other.

“I’m chasing improvement. We finished sixth last year so anything above that is good. We have to do a lot of things right to get there.”

Burgess’s presence means that all eyes will be on the Halliwell Jones Stadium. If a head coach can put bums on seats - even just out of curiosity to see whether he succeeds or fails in his latest venture - he will do so.

He brings baggage, yes, but glamour too. And a touch of Hollywood.

“Russell Crowe texted me yesterday asking what the team is looking like and what the weather is like. He sent me a nice video from the tennis court in Australia,” said Burgess.

“He’s over doing something in the middle of the year - something with his band I think - so I’ve got him to confirm he will come to a game.”

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