LONDON – Nine months after playing his first game of rugby union, Sam Burgess completed a remarkable rise to England’s squad for the Rugby World Cup on Thursday in the most divisive selection by coach Stuart Lancaster.
Burgess was included as one of four centers in an inexperienced 31-man squad for next month’s tournament, despite having more game time as a blindside flanker for his club since a high-profile switch from rugby league. He has made just one appearance for England, in a World Cup warmup game against France on Aug. 15.
Lancaster, though, has seen enough from Burgess in England’s 10-week training camp to insist he is not taking a gamble.
“He had to earn the right as a rugby player first and foremost,” Lancaster said of Burgess. “But then you add the value-added that he brings. There’s no doubt he lifted players in that dressing room before that France game, he lifted them during the game.
“His character and presence around the group and the way he inspires other people has definitely had an impact.”
Burgess was picked ahead of Luther Burrell, an England regular over the last two seasons, and is likely to be used a dangerous weapon off the bench. With his physicality and ball-carrying ability, Burgess could be England’s answer to New Zealand code-switching center Sonny Bill Williams.
Former England internationals Will Carling, Matt Dawson and Mike Tindall are among those who have questioned the awareness and game-management skills of Burgess, who was one of the world’s best players in rugby league before switching codes after winning the NRL grand final with South Sydney Rabbitohs in Australia last September.
Burgess played better — and more often — at flanker than at center for English club Bath last season, but was always on England’s radar as a powerful midfield runner.
“He has been behind the 8-ball as far as time is concerned and obviously everyone has an opinion,” said England backs coach Andy Farrell, who also switched from rugby league to union. “But to force our arm to put him in our squad, he should be unbelievably proud of himself.”
Henry Slade, who won his first cap alongside Burgess against France, was also picked in the centers and will cover a number of positions in the back division. His selection meant fellow utility player Danny Cipriani missed out, despite Cipriani being widely seen as the most creative player in English rugby.
“Of course I would have liked more time to state my case,” Cipriani, who was a substitute in both of England’s warmup games against France, said on Twitter, “and I am very disappointed to make the squad . . . I wouldn’t be a true competitor if I said I agreed, as we all believe in ourselves.”
Only seven players from the 2011 squad have survived and there are just three players with more than 50 caps. Lancaster will fall short of his stated aim of having a starting team with more than 600 caps combined.
Recently returned from a broken leg, Ben Morgan got the nod over Nick Easter to the back-up No. 8 spot behind Billy Vunipola. Injury-ravaged prop Alex Corbisiero missed out, two years after being one of the stars for the British and Irish Lions in their series win in Australia.
Rival prop Kieran Brookes was preferred as he is able to cover both sides of the scrum.
Lancaster selected 17 forwards and 14 backs.
“It’s been an absolute roller coaster,” Lancaster said.
England, the World Cup host, is in the toughest pool alongside Wales, Australia, Fiji and Uruguay.
England plays Fiji in the opening match of the tournament on Sept. 18.