Sam Burgess has labelled his former Bath coach Mike Ford “a snake” and claimed that the politics involving his son, current England international George, sabotaged his rugby union career in an effort to land himself the national team job.
Rugby league great Burgess has opened up on the 2015 Rugby World Cup debacle for the first time, when then-head coach Stuart Lancaster took a huge gamble by including Burgess in his squad for the home tournament – despite the Dewsbury native being a union novice who had not played the sport since he was 13 before switching to Bath in 2014.
Burgess made a name for himself with Bradford Bulls in the Super League before heading Down Under to join South Sydney Rabbitohs, the National Rugby League side co-owned by actor Russell Crowe, and helped them to their first NRL title in 43 years in 2014.
However, a switch to union proved ill-fated, with Burgess failing to make the desired impact at the World Cup five years ago, and he quickly returned to rugby league later that year.
Opening up on the saga to former England teammate James Haskell and presenter Alex Payne on the House of Rugby podcast, Burgess revealed how the “politics” behind the scenes within the national team set-up caused friction when it came to selection, while Ford – who was then Burgess’s head coach at Bath – had his sights on Lancaster’s job and had already started to have an impact on the team.
“The politics went through the roof, Burgess said. “Mike Ford wanted the England coaching job.
He added: “I think probably the biggest outcome everyone wanted was, Mike Ford wanted the England coaching job. So his job was to try and sabotage Lancaster and his decision-making and his coaching methods.
“I think obviously with George being his son in camp, it kind of infiltrated a little bit into the team camp. That’s just my take on it, whether that’s the reality of it or not, but that’s my reality.”
Ford’s son George started the opening World Cup match against Fiji at fly-half, only for Lancaster to opt with a midfield combination of Owen Farrell and Burgess for the second match against Wales. With 10 minutes to go and England holding a slender lead, Lancaster opted to take Burgess off and send on Ford, only for Wales’s replacement scrum-half Gareth Davies to score a try a minute later and lay the platform for Dan Biggar to kick Warren Gatland’s side to victory and effectively boot England out of their home World Cup.
“I just felt that people behind the scenes were playing a deeper game,” explained Burgess. “With George, Mike kind of infiltrated the camp – that is my take on it.
“After me starting against Wales, my relationship with George completely changed, he wouldn’t talk to me, he was a bit sulky.
“Knowing what I know now, I see the politics. George came on with 10 minutes to go to keep Mike and George happy. We didn’t need him on, we had the team to finish the game.”
England were eventually knocked out the following week in a heavy defeat against Australia, where Lancaster tinkered with his line-up once again to pair Farrell with Saracens teammate Brad Barritt and leave both Ford and Burgess on the replacements’ bench, and after taking a post-World Cup break, the cross-coder returned to Bath to have a brutally honest conversation with his head coach.
“I had to tell him I couldn’t play for him anymore. I’d lost respect for him,” Burgess said.
“I went back to Bath and I couldn’t sit in the same room as Mike. It was pretty hot to be honest.
“I went straight into his office and said ‘Mike I don’t trust you, I think you have been playing games behind my back, you have used me as a bit of a pawn in your game of chess, I can’t put my boots on and play for you every week’.
“I will never forget his face when I said, ‘I can’t respect you, I think you are a bit of a snake.’ I remember the quiver that I got from him.”
Burgess returned to the NRL with the Rabbitohs, though last October he was forced to retire at the age of 30 due to a serious shoulder injury that he had been nursing for a large part of his career.
Burgess’s time in rugby union nearly brought immediate success as he helped Bath reach the Premiership final, only for the second-place finishers to come up short against fourth-placed Saracens in a 28-16 defeat in which they trailed 25-3 early on.
“We made the Premiership final that year, and this is one of my biggest nags of my career,” Burgess recalled. “We made the final of the Premiership and, in my opinion, a lot of the players didn’t turn up that day.
“I don’t think Bath had won for a long time too, but I’d just come off winning a Premiership with South Sydney and I wanted to go back to back, and it didn’t mean a lot to those people because there was a World Cup coming up. That nagged me a bit, I was like ‘why don’t these guys want to win this? I want to win this final, and then I want to go to the World Cup, but I want to win this one and then win that one’. And it just didn’t feel like the same level of commitment at Bath from a couple of players that had one eye on the World Cup. That’s just how I’m reading it, maybe I’m wrong, but it didn’t sit well with me at all.”
Both Mike and George Ford went on to leave Bath and are now both at Leicester Tigers. The Independent has contacted Leicester Tigers for comment.