Friday, September 26, 2014

SBW & Sam - The last time

Tonight, two of Rugby League’s modern day greats go into their final battle, for the very last time. After 80 minutes, or potentially even more, one will exit the game forever; the other will have an opportunity at premiership glory.

Round 1, 2013
The image that optimises the two behemoths that are Sam Burgess and Sonny Bill Williams, is the ‘welcome back’ gift Sam delivered SBW in round 1, 2013. With SBW returning from a 5 year stint in Rugby Union with so much hype he had his own voice narrate his call up off the bench, Sam Burgess demanded the ball as soon as he spotted SBW in the line, and in one run showed the world that no longer was SBW in the game he left as the world’s best. Straight over the top of the Roosters back-rower like a bull over a backpacker in Pamplona. The way both men play the game is with absolute ferocity, leaving nothing in the tank. SBW no longer relies on the shoulder charge, but with a refined game still delivers the ultimate punch to opposition forward packs. Sam plays the game so hard; he missed numerous games in his first two seasons in Australia. His approach has not changed and he will be the one out their tonight for South Sydney looking for the first hit up or tackle.

The two men have taken drastically different paths to their current point in the NRL. They have had clouds hang over their heads, chips on their shoulder, and obstacles to overcome. The way they have taken on these journeys has seen them become the men they are today, and provide a valuable insight into why they are the players they are.

SBW’s exit from the Bulldogs sent him overseas to French Rugby Union and put simply, earned him the title of Rugby League’s biggest dog. The walk out left him with few friends in the game or country, and was probably a driving force for his success in Rugby Union. A world cup winner and Super Rugby Champion with the Chiefs, SBW also became a devoted Muslim during this time adhering to the strict lifestyle of the faith. It appears though, SBW always knew he would have to one day return to the game that made him and help restore his reputation. That came in the form of a handshake with Roosters boss Nick Politis. Uncle Nick knew what Williams could bring to a club that for so long had been rife with a loose culture in a city of distractions. The story of Sonny Bill turning up to the first training session with a notebook ready to take notes was a strange one to old Rugby League heads, but an indication of how professional he had become. Being such a strong personality and carrying the aura he does, he almost single handily reformed the culture of the Roosters through his actions alone. Combined with new direction of well schooled Head Coach Trent Robinson, and the holistic approach to health and fitness from Strength Coach Keegan Smith the Roosters finally got off the booze and took the game to a new level. Ultimately resulting in a premiership for the tri-colours, an astounding achievement considering they had a rookie coach, almost half a team of new players and where they ran the year before. SBW’s year in 2014 has seen some solid performances, but he hasn’t had that class and domination of last year in recent weeks. Many will be waiting for him to explode tonight.

Sam’s ride to his third successive NRL preliminary final began in Northern England, where he played for the Bradford Bulls as a teenager. In this time while establishing himself as bucking young forward, he also cared for his father before he sadly passed away, often carrying his dad up the stairs to his bed in their Yorkshire home. If that doesn’t make you grow up quick, nothing will. Ironically dubbed in 2006 as “England’s Sonny Bill”, Burgess went on to establish himself as one of the best forwards in the Super League and made eye catching appearances for Great Britain and England. Soon the prodigy would be courted by South’s’ owner Russell Crowe and convinced to come to the NRL. In 2009, Rusty gained Burgess' signature and promised South Sydney fans the greatest signing since his takeover of the club. On the day Burgess made his debut at the historic Redfern Oval for a pre-season trial, the gladiator presented Sam with a membership card and number with his father’s name on it. The relationship Russell built with Sam was key to signing him, and has been key to his performances for the foundation club ever since. Burgess has now been at the forefront of the game for 4 years, coming onto the scene with a ripping game for the All Stars in 2010, holding nothing back when slamming the Preston Campbell into the ground and looking for heads straight after. His highlight real ever since is endless, and the shoulders, runs and hits have been felt long after by those he’s come up against. After falling just one game short of the Grand Final for the last two years, Burgess realised the need to knuckle down and has finally kept out of the social pages, focusing purely on football in what will be his last year. It’s no coincidence that by keeping quiet this year, he is genuinely in the running for the Dally M.

With their teams having not played against each other in a finals game for 76 years, and cross city rivalries that go back to 1908, no player will want to leave the field tonight after losing. Whatever the case, both players have become greats in their own rights, and will be remembered forever at their famous clubs. This final, epic showdown between these two powerhouses will be one for the ages, and provides one of the most tantalising build ups to a game in recent memory. Will Sam finally complete his journey down under and take South Sydney to within 80 minutes of their first premiership in 43 years? Or will SBW carry the Roosters to another title, becoming one of only a select group to have won 3 NRL titles in their career. Honestly, if you call yourself a Rugby League fan and you’re not at ANZ stadium tonight to see this clash the game has been waiting for, take a good hard look in the mirror. What a showdown and fight this is going to be. Some say the grand final has come early, but Rugby League has a funny way of throwing up the unexpected. What will tonight bring?
The two greats rivalry...