Burgess torn as Lions tour beckons
Decisions, decisions ... Luke Burgess is considering cutting short his stint with Toulouse to return to Australia. Photo: Getty Images
PARIS: Luke Burgess has thrown himself into life in rugby-mad southern France. The former Wallabies halfback, who left Australia near the height of his career, is taking French lessons twice a week and relishing a comparatively anonymous existence in Toulouse, where rugby is ''life and death''.
Burgess and his wife Emilie are expecting their first child within days and last week celebrated the passing of one challenging but riveting year in France.
So it is no small decision the 28-year-old faces as he mulls an open invitation from Wallabies coach Robbie Deans to return to Australia and make himself available for the British and Irish Lions tour next winter.
"I'm tempted, I'll say that. I haven't ruled it out or in," Burgess said.
"The Lions are a big thing for any rugby player, so I'm tempted, but you can't always give in to temptation. We're expecting a baby next week so my decisions aren't my own any more, I've got to consider my family and the career that I have left."
Burgess's mooted return to Australian rugby was first raised ahead of the final Bledisloe Test in Brisbane. Deans sounded out his former second-choice halfback with the spring tour in mind but the performances of Burgess's former understudy Nick Phipps and Force No.9 Brett Sheehan satisfied the Wallabies coach enough to delay the call for reinforcement.
The door has been left open for the Lions tour, with all the same obstacles still in place, including the ARU's rules defining Test eligibility and Burgess's contract with Toulouse. There is more time to sort out those details in this case but also more time for Phipps and Sheehan to cement their spots.
"Who knows what the coaches want to do, as players we're basically at their beckon call so it's out of my hands," Burgess said. "If the opportunity arose it'd be great but it also has to fit in with Toulouse, so there's a lot of people you have to try and consider and keep happy."
Deans's obvious high regard for Burgess and his willingness to consider making possible his return might send any man into a spiral of second-guesses.
Would Burgess be touring Europe today as Australia's starting halfback?
''You don't know if that's true or not,'' he said. ''I'm pretty happy with my decision … you can't look back on a what-if situation and let that affect my life now, so I'm definitely not going to do that.''
In truth, the move came as a relief. The decision to join Toulouse was made early last year and the pressure cooker build-up to the World Cup did nothing but affirm it. Not even the presence of the team in France this week has piqued green and gold nostalgia.
''It's such an intense environment, I needed a little repose from that,'' he said. ''I miss the guys, I iss the group, I miss all that aspect of the experience, but once you're a Wallaby you're always a Wallaby, so I think to have had that experience is really something special … I got the opportunity to play at the World Cup in New Zealand and I just felt like I had a full stomach and it was time to move on.''
It is unusual for footballers to leave near their peak. Burgess was not young for a halfback but he was by no means beginning to wind down either. He had always planned to play in France but there was ample time.
''I definitely didn't want to leave with people thinking, 'Oh, his best days were behind him,''' Burgess said. ''I prefer to leave and have people say, 'He left when he was able to give everything for the Wallabies.' That's exactly what I wanted.''
There was another layer to Burgess's career in Australia. He was not only a Wallaby but a Waratah, which brings its own quirks and challenges.
''The Waratahs is an interesting dynamic, I think, because there's so much tension at club level in NSW that if clubs don't see their club players in the Waratahs they're always bagging the Waratahs and it's tough,'' he said.
Toulouse have embraced their Australian import. He is coach Guy Noves's first-choice halfback and has played every game so far. Burgess, in turn, has embraced the city's passion for rugby in its northern hemisphere form.
''Sydney people want to be entertained and rugby's not always like that. We play less attractive rugby in Toulouse than what people would [see] in the Waratahs - much less - and people in Toulouse scream their lungs out for 80 minutes, loving it,'' he said.
''Whereas the Waratahs [crowds] would boo you at half-time if you didn't string eight phases together, and that's just the way it is. I think there are some people in Sydney that understand rugby and there are some people that don't.''
A year into a possible three in France, with language barriers and no one but each other, Burgess and his wife are about to take on another huge challenge with the expected birth of their first child. The time together in France has strengthened their relationship immeasurably, despite the normal longings for old friends and close family - emotions, no doubt, that will be heightened by a baby's arrival.
But there is much about Burgess, evidenced by his career decisions to this point, that tips him into sink or swim extremes. Despite the revolving door flow of foreign players to the Top 14, Toulouse remain one of the least internationalised.
''I didn't want to come to France and have a diluted experience. I'm not going to be here forever so I need to get the most out of it and to be in such a strong French environment,'' he said. ''Rugby is life or death in the south, there's promotion-relegation, there's the most hostile crowds you could ever hope to play in front of. It's just a wonderful experience.''