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South Sydney’s fall from grace this season may be the catalyst for Sam Burgess’ expected return, with the English dual international motivated by the challenge of helping the Rabbitohs win another premiership.
After being given time off by Bath coach Mike Ford to consider his playing future, Burgess could finalise a switch back from rugby union to the NRL before his scheduled return to training next Monday and officials from England’s Rugby Football League are believed to be helping with the move.
With Burgess wanting to re-join brothers George and Thomas at Souths and money no real problem for a club in which James Packer and Russell Crowe are owners, the only obstacle to him returning is a release from the remaining two years of his contract with Bath.
Ford is believed to be keen for Burgess to stay and continue his development in the forwards but few clubs will stand in the way of a player who wants to be elsewhere – especially when they could earn up to $1 million compensation, which is the amount Bath reportedly paid the Rabbitohs last year to release Burgess.
The NRL has confirmed that any transfer fee Souths pay Bath will not be included in their salary cap, nor will Burgess become the first player to benefit from the governing body’s ability to centrally contract stars it wants playing in the competition.
As a value will be placed on Burgess by the NRL, the Rabbitohs will have to make some adjustments to their 2016 roster to accommodate him but the departure of star hooker Issac Luke to the Warriors and Glenn Stewart to Catalans means the salary cap won’t pose a significant problem for the club.
Stewart was signed from Manly as a replacement for Burgess but failed to provide the same impact as the 26-year-old, who inspired Souths to their first premiership in 43 years after playing the 2014 grand final with a fractured eye-socket suffered in the opening tackle.
Had the Rabbitohs won back-to-back premierships, it is less likely that Burgess would want to return so soon but after they slumped to seventh place this season he has a desire to take the club back to the pinnacle he helped it reach last year.
The decision of twins, George and Thomas, to extend their contracts with Souths until the end of the 2018 season was viewed as an indication that Sam would return to the club at some stage in the next three years. But Fairfax Media has been told that moves for that to happen immediately hit a wall last week after Bath stood firm in their refusal to release him.
However, Burgess’ future was thrust into the spotlight when he attended last weekend’s league Test between England and France as a special guest of the RFL at the same time Bath were playing Wasps in Coventry. He was photographed sitting alongside England coach Steve McNamara during the record 84-4 win at Leigh Sports Village.
Burgess and his n fiancee Phoebe Hooke were in the same corporate box as RFL chief executive Nigel Wood and sources say they discussed with him and other high-ranking officials his wish to return to the NRL after a frustrating 12-month stint in rugby union, in which he was continually subjected to heavy criticism over his transition to the code as a centre.
With doubt surrounding the future of England coach Stuart Lancaster and backs coach Andy Farrell, who had convinced him to make the switch after the 2013 Rugby League World Cup, Burgess may be without the support of his two most powerful backers at international level next season.
Besides George and Thomas, Burgess’ elder brother Luke and mother Julie also live in Sydney, as does Hooke’s family.
Burgess would be a certain selection for England in next year’s Four Nations and while a stint with Super League premiers Leeds has been ruled out, RFL officials believe his return to league would significantly boost the chances of McNamara’s men winning the World Cup in the following season.
McNamara, who turned down a role as an assistant to Ford at Bath after the 2013 RLWC to join the coaching staff at Sydney Roosters, has a close relationship with Burgess after giving him his Super League debut as a 17-year-old with Bradford in 2006.
However, there is little chance of Burgess joining the Roosters or any other club as a clause in his deed of release from Souths gives the Rabbitohs first option on his services if returned to the NRL.