Sam Burgess was given his professional rugby league debut by Steve McNamara as a 17-year-old. On Saturday, 18 years later, he takes charge of a team in a competitive game for the first time against his old head coach.
Burgess and McNamara’s relationship remained close even after the forward had left behind Bradford Bulls for South Sydney Rabbitohs, working together as captain and coach of the England national team. Now, they will lock horns in Perpignan as Burgess’ Warrington Wolves face Catalans Dragons in the teams’ Betfred Super League season opener.
Those early days of his career playing under McNamara at the Bulls are still fond memories for Burgess at the age of 35, although there will be no time for nostalgia at Stade Gilbert Brutus. He will, however, be tapping into some of that as he embarks on now being the person in charge.
“It was really enjoyable – Steve allowed me to play freely,” Burgess said. “I guess I’ve taken that into all my players to express themselves within the structure we’ve put in place.
“Steve and I were close, not only as coach and player but off the field as well.
“He’s had an amazing career as a player and a coach and there are certainly things you have to admire in that. It’ll be business next week.”
Burgess could hardly have asked for a much tougher start for his first head coaching role than last year’s Super League Grand Final runners-up away in the south of France, particularly having taken charge of a Wolves team which has failed to live up to its own and external expectations in recent years.
There is little doubt of the talent in the squad, which has been strengthened with signings such as high-profile NRL recruits Zane Musgrove and Lachlan Fitzgibbon plus Wigan Warriors hooker Sam Powell and already-included joint-Man of Steel favourite George Williams.
A return to honing basic skills and a focus on being stronger in defence are among the approaches Burgess has adopted since taking charge for the start of pre-season, although he admits he has still yet to fully unravel why Warrington have repeatedly fallen short of that elusive first Super League title despite seemingly have many of the building blocks in place.
“I’m still working it out,” Burgess said. “You can’t do it overnight; it takes time and you’ve got to get a certain level of buy-in.
“I’m not disrespecting the team or what has been done before under previous coaches, but they’ve not had much success for the past few years so something needs to change.
“I don’t know what that is yet, but I’ve brought in what I think will help and we’ve had a good pre-season, but the proof will be in the pudding when we start playing the games over a certain period of time.”
I’m not disrespecting the team or what has been done before under previous coaches, but they’ve not had much success for the past few years so something needs to change.
Burgess was appointed as Daryl Powell’s permanent successor in a blaze of publicity last August, having spent the past three years working as an assistant coach at Souths and having a spell in charge of New South Wales country team Orara Valley Axemen.
Along with McNamara he has worked under coaches such as Michael Maguire, who he won the 2014 NRL Grand Final under, and Wayne Bennett as well as another with a strong league background in Mike Ford during his short time playing rugby union, and he is harnessing those experiences along with aspects of his playing days in this role.
“That’s three years of coaching experience with all different levels of responsibility, and you probably learn a lot in those three years,” Burgess said.
“As a player, I always took a keen interest in team dynamics, so I was always involved with a lot of off-field decision-making.
“I’ve got a few people on speed dial I’m probably annoying at the moment and I’m really enjoying my own learning experience. I’m learning from the players, from things above me and the side of me, and everywhere, so I’m enjoying it.”
A 16-8 defeat to rivals St Helens in the elimination play-off last year was an improvement on the 2022 campaign when the Wolves finished a disappointing 11th, with only relegated Toulouse Olympique below them.
A 28-12 loss to last year’s Betfred Challenge Cup winners Leigh Leopards in Joe Philbin’s testimonial match last week may not mean too much when the Super League season gets under way, but Burgess is candid enough to concede he is not expecting overnight success at Warrington.
“I’m not saying I’ll get it right,” Burgess said. “There will be bumps in my road, don’t get me wrong.
“Is it going to be perfect? No. Will we hit the ground running? I don’t know. I still think we’ll be growing as a team as the season unfolds.
“I don’t think we’ll be the finished article or anywhere near it at the start of the year, I’ll just be happy with gradual improvement and that’s what we’ll be after.”
Watch the Sam Burgess era get under way for Warrington Wolves in their first game of the new Betfred Super League season away to Catalans Dragons live on Sky Sports on February 17 (5.30pm kick-off time). Also stream on NOW.