For his first game back in an England shirt, Sam Burgess probably couldn’t have picked a more ideal opponent than New Zealand.
After all, it’s the Kiwis who hold some of the most memorable bonds with Burgess in international rugby league: for both good and bad reasons.
The bad? Burgess’ last game in an England rugby league shirt three years ago, when he had to watch on as Shaun Johnson scored the try which took the Kiwis to the World Cup final at the expense of Steve McNamara’s side.
“I have real mixed emotions of that game,” he admits. “As a child, I always wanted to play at Wembley, so having the chance with England is special enough.
“It was one of the greatest Test matches I have been a part of and one of the most enjoyable games I’ve played in; but we lost, so there was plenty of mixed emotions there. That’s where you have to learn and improve – I’ve moved on from it now.
The good? Even further back than that, when Burgess was a mop-haired teenager making waves at Bradford. The irony is almost too clear to believe; against New Zealand, at Huddersfield, in 2009, when it felt like he made the Earth shatter when he collided with Fuifui Moimoi.
“I remember that,” he smiles. “It feels like two minutes ago but it is nine years ago – it’s crazy. I know what I was feeling; nerves and emotion before the game. I felt comfortable on the field surrounded by some great men though: Jamie Peacock, Gareth Ellis, Adrian Morley and Terry Newton. Now I can pass on that same experience being an older guy in the squad, to some of the younger lads playing in their first tournament.”
And so nine years on from his most notorious moment, and three years on from his most painstaking in an England shirt, Burgess has come full circle: returning to the international game at the ground where he made his debut. Only this time, he’s captain. That would be a big deal for most mere mortals: but Burgess is ice cool about the prospect of captaining his country for the first time this weekend.
“To be given the captaincy is a real honour and something I do with pride and will give it everything,” he admits. “I will be over the moon and sing the anthem loud and proud and get stuck in.
“Being captain is not really going to change me or things I bring to the team. What is really important is performing for my team-mates and coach.”
That night in Huddersfield nine years ago, Burgess was on the field with Peacock – a man who, in Burgess’ own words, has a career which appears to mysteriously align with a man he openly idolises.
“I’ve been a massive fan of Jamie’s since I was a young kid. I made my debut for Bradford against Jamie at Leeds, and I made my Great Britain debut with Jamie against the Kiwis at Huddersfield – so it is funny we keep popping up against each other. I am now captain and he is team manager. We always seem aligned in our careers.”
But for all the talk about Burgess, the armband and his triumphant return, the skipper is focussed on what lies ahead – with the magnitude of Saturday’s opener not lost on the 27-year-old.
“We all know the importance of the game,” he admits. “It is Test match rugby and that’s what it should be about. Every game should be do or die. We are preparing on a daily basis to get the best performance on Saturday. I’m pretty sure it is going to be a good game with that physical encounter between both teams.”
When England announced Burgess would be captain for the Four Nations, it immediately felt a good fit. Now just hours away from the tournament starting, that decision doesn’t look any different. Sam Burgess is back – and he’s aiming for history.