England centre Jonathan Joseph has backed rugby league convert Sam Burgess to seal his place in head coach Stuart Lancaster’s World Cup squad with a breakthrough performance against France tomorrow.
Former South Sydney Rabbitohs star Burgess has a prime opportunity to press his claims for inclusion after Lancaster named him in an experimental England XV to face Les Bleus at Twickenham in the first of three preparatory QBE internationals.
Burgess is being considered for World Cup selection at centre rather than blindside flanker, where he played for Bath last season, and will line up at No12 alongside fellow midfield debutant Henry Slade.
Joseph has witnessed club-mate Burgess’s transition to rugby union first-hand and expects the 26-year-old to demonstrate the necessary strength of character to bulldoze his way into Lancaster’s plans.
“He is the real deal. He’s a great all-round player and has a lot to offer the team,” Joseph told City A.M.
“His leadership is impeccable so in terms of that he would be a great asset. He hasn’t played a huge amount at centre but his skill set speaks for itself. He will deliver a good performance wherever.
"If he gets given an opportunity he will definitely take it because he is that type of character. He will rise to the occasion.”
Joseph’s stance is not universally shared. World Cup-winning scrum-half Matt Dawson believes Burgess lacks the necessary game-management to be an international centre. Joseph, in turn, insists England will close ranks against outside criticism.
“It’s background noise. We’re focused on the squad and what’s inside our bubble and what makes us tick,” he added. “Anything outside of that which is going to affect our performance on an individual or team level we’re going to block out.
“We’ve got to remain focused on the task ahead and if people try to knock us or try and pick on one of the boys, we’ll come together, block it out, stay focused and concentrate on the controllables.”
Burgess survived last week’s cull as Lancaster trimmed his squad by seven, but is not alone in facing an anxious wait to discover whether he will make the final 31-man squad, to be finalised by the end of the month.
Lancaster has already cited the importance of communication to avoid a Paul Gascoigne-like situation developing – the footballer trashed England manager Glenn Hoddle’s hotel room after being axed on the eve of the 1998 World Cup. Joseph does not envisage any such problems.
“Not at all. Ultimately, we are a team and we have to work together on all fronts,” said Joseph. “There haven't been people trying to do the extra annoying stuff in training neither or whatever it may be. Everyone is pushing through together.
“We’ve been pushed to our limits during the training camp and we’re definitely seeing the benefits of the work we’ve put in. Without a doubt, we’re a better team now than in the Six Nations.
"The more you’re around each other, the more cohesive you become and we’re definitely a tighter outfit. We were very tight before but even more so now.
“We’re learning more about each other, on and off the pitch, and that will help us when we play a game. You’ve got to train alongside someone who you know will put it in for you.”
Barring a major setback, Joseph – crowned England’s player of the year in May – is all but secured a spot in the final squad after injuries afforded him the opportunity to play a starring role at the Six Nations.
The 24-year-old’s rise has been meteoric considering he was on the periphery of the international scene just a year ago, having been overlooked for England’s summer tour of New Zealand.
“I couldn’t have envisaged being in this position 12 months ago as I wasn’t even in the picture,” added Joseph.
“Missing out on that New Zealand tour was a massive driving force for me. Seeing a lot of my mates go on that trip was tough. It really hit home.
“Stuart rang and said that they were going with the other boys and mentioned his reasons. It was disappointing but it meant I had a point to prove.
“I returned with a different mindset and worked pretty hard – well very hard – to make sure I tidied up errors in my game and ensure I was in the best position to succeed.”
All that remains now are three warm-up matches ahead of their opening clash of the tournament against Fiji at Twickenham on 18 September, as England bid to emulate the World Cup-winning class of 2003.
“It will be a great stepping stone for us going into the World Cup if we can put in good performances, back those up with results and build momentum,” said Joseph.
“That’s how we see these games: a chance for us to lay that platform and be confident about what we can deliver.
“It’s a very unique and special occasion having a home World Cup. It’s something you dream about as a kid. We’ll be doing all we can to make sure we’re in the shape of our lives to deliver.”
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