Sam Burgess on sport's most famous half-time interview and friendship with Russell Crowe
"The story is deeper than what meets the eye."
As half-time interviews go, Sam Burgess' 2014 debrief during the 2014 NRL Grand Final deserves a pantheon of its' own.
Leading 6-0 at the break, the South Sydney Rabbitohs had asserted their dominance over the Canterbury Bulldogs but went towards the sheds knowing they should have been further in front.
Sam Burgess, the Rabbitohs' inspirational lock, had smashed his cheekbone and eye-socket in the first minute of the game after a brutal collision with Bulldogs prop James Graham. The Yorkshire native wanted to play on and went on to deliver a man-of-the-match performance.
It was an epic Rabbitohs display, and one that their fans will cherish for years to come, but Burgess' interview with Brad Fittler is the moment most rugby league supporters associate with the final.
After giving Fittler a brief summation on the opening half, Burgess was asked about his cheek. Gingerly removing his mouth-guard, he responded, "It's f***ed. It's gone."
On JOE UK's House of Rugby, the rugby league legend joined joined James Haskell and host Alex Payne for a chat that covered the unfortunate passing of his father, befriending Russell Crowe, partying with Leonardo DiCaprio and Seth Rogen, and his short-lived union career with Bath and England.
Asked by Payne about that famous half-time comment, Burgess took us back to when he first opted to leave his home in England for a fresh start in Australia. He was 21 and looking to move away from Bradford Bulls. He met Rabbitohs shareholder, and Hollywood actor, Crowe on a couple of occasions and, when a move was secured, he vowed to deliver the Sydney side a long-awaited championship [they had not won the league crown since 1971].
"The story is deeper than what meets the eye," Burgess began.
"In 2013, we basically played five pre-lims... you play 26 rounds in the regular season then you go into a new cup with four rounds and then a final. It's insane. I played in three pre-lims in 2013 and we went 14-0 up in the final pre-lim [against Manly]. We were winning by a country mile and we kind of bottled it, in my eyes anyway, because we were scared of victory.
"Because of the 42-year drought, at the time, the press, this and that. Collectively, I think we were scared of success. I think a few things were blamed, wrongly, for the loss. That's when I came back to the UK to play in the Rugby League World Cup. Around that time, I thought, 'I don't want to be in Australia any more. I don't want to play in that culture any more... we couldn't look ourselves in the mirror and say, 'No, we lost because we were scared.'
"So, at the start of the next year, I went and sat with the head coach, Russell and the CEO and I said, 'Guys, I'm out of here'. They asked why and I told them, 'We lost last year and you blamed it on the wrong reasons. We could have won'. They had blamed it on there being too much hype around the team and external factors that, in my opinion, don't really matter. There's no external factors when you get on the field. When you step over that white line, it's Man v. Man, Team v. Team, game on!"
At that moment, back in early 2014, Burgess' representatives had floated the idea of his returning to England and Bath Rugby, then coached by Mike Ford, reached out. A deal was done but Burgess made a vow to the Crowe and the Rabbitohs:
"I said, 'Look, I'll give you one year. I promise you I'll give it my shot at winning the title, which I promised you I'd do'.
"So we get to the final and it was like, 'Yeah we'll do it. I told you we'd do it'. And the first minute of the game, I absolutely demolished my face. How can that happen?!
"But the weight that was on me was heavy. I had promised it. I had said we'd deliver and here we were in the big game and I had smashed my face up in the first play of the game. It was quite theatrical, but all my career had been that way."
Burgess also recalls one of the first thoughts that went through his mind was how he might miss out on the post-game celebrations. With 79 minutes of the game left to play, he was fuming that he might miss going for drinks with his teammates.
"By the back end of the game," says Burgess, "the blood was going down the back of my throat. People thought I had broken something in my mouth but it was just the blood coming down [internally] and I was running and coughing, spitting the blood out. People ask, 'How did you do that?' and, to this day, I don't know.
"For the whole year of 2014 I had said, 'Guys, I'm not partying. I don't want, come the end of this year, for you guys to look at me and think that I did this and that. I'll see you at the end of the year. When we lift the trophy, I'll drink with you'.
"Numerous times, they tried to sway me but I said, 'No. Guys, I'll drink with you when we hold the trophy up'... so when I injured my face, my first thought was, 'Shit, I'm not going to be able to go party with the boys tonight!' I had a whole house stocked and I was ready to roll. I had not drank for 12 months."
In the end, with Sam's brother George getting on the second half scored-sheet, South Sydney won the Grand Final 30-6. The long wait for a championship was over. Burgess had been at the Rabbitohs for four years and, for his first year in Australia, had lived at one of Crowe's apartments. They had shared nights out in Sydney, New York and London and had developed a strong friendship.
For Burgess, he knew the one present he could give the man who seemingly had everything. "You can't," he says, "it's impossible.
"But you can give them something. You can give them a memory, you can give them a feeling. You can give them something.
"I'd like to think that I gave Russell that feeling, of winning the Premiership. So I won the Clive Churchill Medal on the night, for man of the match, and I gave that to Russell as a thank you. And it sits in his bar up, on his property in Nana Glen. So that was my gift to him."
As for that famous video, Burgess says he was so much in game-mode that he just gave Fittler, who he considered a friend, an honest answer. There was no point in sugar-coating it.
There has been much coverage, this week, of Sam Burgess blaming "snake" Mike Ford for playing politics and not playing him a straight hand, around the time of the World Cup.
"I just felt that people behind the scenes were playing a deeper game. The biggest thing was that Mike Ford wanted the England coaching job, so his job was to try sabotage Stuart Lancaster and his decision-making, and his coaching methods."
That Burgess interview has re-lit a fuse in English rugby that many figured had been snuffed out. It remains to be seen whether Ford, who is now coaching at Leicester Tigers, or his son, George, will seek their right of reply. Should either man exercise that right, they will have a captive audience.
WATCH THE FULL SAM BURGESS INTERVIEW HERE:
SUBSCRIBE TO BAZ & ANDREW'S HOUSE OF RUGBY: https://playpodca.st/house-of-rugby-ie
Catch up on past shows and House of Rugby interviews with the likes of Sean O'Brien, Victor Matfield, Simon Zebo, Drew Mitchell, Tadhg Beirne, Mike Brown, Finn Russell, Brian O'Driscoll, Jean De Villiers and more.