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Sam Burgess: Rugby union stint made me mentally tougher

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It is remarkable to suggest to a man whose last rugby league match involved him playing 80 minutes of a grand final with a broken cheekbone that he is mentally tougher now than he was then.   

But Sam Burgess, who inspired the Rabbitohs to their first premiership in 43 years after being injured in the opening tackle of the 2014 decider, agrees he learnt a lot about how to handle pressure in his stint in English rugby union.

"I learned a heap about that over there," said Burgess, after talking at length about his experience in England and the expectations on him ahead of the coming weekend's NRL comeback against the Roosters in Souths' season-opening match at Allianz Stadium.

"The politics in the game are far more than you find in this game and you learn that as a player.

"It was a great life experience and I learned some life skills dealing with different characters and a lot of people who had different agendas, people who you think are on your side but are then pulling the other way in the media. It is the first time I have really experienced that and that overall was a great thing to learn on, and a great thing to have to deal with all the time."


The experience has made the 27-year-old dual international appreciate just how good his life is here, living at Bondi in the new house he and wife Phoebe purchased after their wedding in December and playing the game he loves for a club he loves and where he is loved in turn.

After joining Bath at the end of the 2014 NRL season, Burgess had less than 10 months to learn a game he had never played before the 2015 Rugby Union World Cup and he is proud of what he achieved and how he performed for England.

"To start a new game from the ground up was a great challenge and I had to get an unbelievably strong mindset to forget everything I had done for the last 20 years in league," he said. "There were about 1000 new things to learn and to do it all in the speed in which I wanted to do it took a hell of a lot of dedication.

"A lot of people don't see all the work that goes into it. To have people saying and the way it got reported in the media, that I had failed and all of this sort of stuff, that I didn't do very well ... I am actually very proud of the way I performed in the World Cup.

"At the time it was a very hot topic but as I get older and reflect on what I did in union I will continue to be proud of my achievements and the way I carried myself over there. The comments made by people when I left ... it is comical when I think about it. They show a lot more emotion in the media than we do over here so it was a great learning curve and a fantastic time, and I look back now with a smile on my face when I talk about it."

Looking ahead, Burgess is aware of the expectation on him at Souths after the Rabbitohs slumped to seventh in his absence last season and were eliminated in the opening weekend of the play-offs.

While he urged reporters after a recent trial match against Gold Coast to focus on the team and not him, the pressure to perform this season does not faze him after what he encountered in England.

"There was a lot of pressure in England, I can tell you that. There was pressure on the inside," Burgess said. "There is no pressure on the inside here, my teammates, the coaching staff and the staff in the office are amazing. For me this is the best job in the world so the pressure has certainly died down for me.

"Going away and being outside of it you look and appreciate a lot more being in and around this environment. Not that I didn't before but you do have days when you think it is tough and everything like that.

"I always knew that what we had created here at South Sydney was quite special but I really like life experiences and I want as many experiences as I can in sport so I would have kicked myself if I didn't do it, and if I didn't do it then I would be thinking about doing it now."

With Issac Luke, Dylan Walker, Chris McQueen, Ben Lowe, Ben Te'o, Lote Tuqiri, Apisai Koroisau and Burgess's brother Luke having left since his last match for the Rabbitohs, the Dewsbury Moors-born forward admits there have been some obvious changes but he insists the culture and feeling within the club are the same.

"Certainly personnel has changed, some players have come and gone, but our structure and ethos are very similar," Burgess said. "What I have really noticed is that the likes of Jason Clark and Chris Grevsmuhl have grown up, they had a season last year where they were probably senior guys in the team and you can see that change in them, and my two younger brothers [George and Thomas] have taken greater responsibility so there are some great signs."

On a personal note, Burgess has also developed as a player from his stint in rugby union and he is slightly bigger - topping the scales at 116kg.

"I learned so many different things - not so much technical things in terms that the games are so different - but I spent a lot of time working on my passing game in union, and my kicking game," he said.

"I worked a lot on speed and athleticism and I got to spend a lot of time in the gym not being as fatigued and as sore as you usually are in league. I am a little bit bigger, certainly my legs and backside are. I am a couple of kilos heavier but I am feeling good and looking forward to the start of the season."