STEPHEN IBBETSON hears Sam Burgess’ plans for turning Warrington Wolves’ fortunes around.
“WHAT’S been happening in the past hasn’t worked, so sometimes you’ve got to step outside the box and try something different. I guess that’s me.”
Sam Burgess knows his appointment as Warrington head coach is an unusual one – and he’ll be hoping that is exactly why it works.
The club needs it to. Take away the near-misses of recent times, the dashed future dreams and the constant ‘always your year’ jibes; the past two years have been traumatic enough in their own right for supporters.
Their last appointment seemed a solid and logical one in Daryl Powell, a man with a huge amount of experience in the bank and a fine track record, not least in revitalising Castleford.
But it proved to be the wrong man at the wrong club, and his time in charge brought only a tortuous decline – in fact not one, but two, in each season he had in charge.
Even before Powell, Warrington were not exactly challenging. They lost in the first round of the play-offs three years running under Steve Price (despite top-four finishes each time) after their most recent Grand Final appearance in that coach’s first season, in 2018.
The period in which they reached Old Trafford four times in seven years is well and truly over. This is a new time, and almost entirely a new team.
Now there’s another new coach, and new in almost every sense. This is Burgess’ first high-level head-coaching role, four years after a distinguished playing career was brought to a premature end.
He’s the youngest coach in Super League, turning 35 next week, and returning to the competition for the first time since leaving Bradford for the bright lights of South Sydney way back in 2009.
Part of the NRL furniture for so long, he knows what a top set-up should look like and was part of one as player and assistant coach at the Rabbitohs.
If Warrington wanted fresh and different, they got it. But what else will they get from Burgess?
He is keen not to reveal much regarding the style of play: “I’ve got a bit of an idea, but I think it’s going to evolve as well.
“My idea might not fit what the team want to play like, so we’ve got to find the middle ground. Ask me that in a few months’ time.”
Clearly something needs to change at Warrington, so what? Having observed the end of their 2023 season from afar with great interest following his appointment, Burgess doesn’t believe a complete overhaul is required so get them competing again.
“The biggest challenge is internally. There are things we can do as a team that need to be better,” he says.
“At the back end of the season you saw plenty of spirit and fight. We have to tidy up some technical things. It’s not drastic changes.
“I’m not coming here to blow this place up. I’m coming here to make it better. I’ll be a great sounding board and hopefully a leading voice.”
The Wolves had some individual performers last season who went above and beyond – Paul Vaughan was the standout Super League prop of the season, George Williams showed some of his world-class best, Matty Ashton continued his progression and Josh Thewlis was named the competition’s young player of the year.
But too many players seemed far below what they are capable of and pressing questions were raised. Is Stefan Ratchford best at centre? Is Josh Drinkwater the organiser Warrington need? Who else is providing the punch up front?
Certain players became particular targets for increasingly disgruntled supporters, including Peter Mata’utia and Greg Minikin, Powell favourites who have now departed, the former for retirement, and forwards like Gil Dudson and Sam Kasiano, who remain in situ for another year.
But Burgess is naturally keen to bring together the team he has, rather than call out any weak spots.
“It’s more as a whole, a holistic approach. What can the team do better? What can we do better collectively? I think that’s the question, and that’s for me to work out,” he says.
“There’s a few things we can tidy up. Small effort areas, some inside pressure work, it’s small detail. But it’s all holistic – what’s better for the team? – rather than individual aspects.”
As always, a new coach should mean a new start for everybody. That includes those bruised by these past two years, and those coming in fresh to the team.
Warrington have made seven signings in all, including Jordan Crowther who spent the final couple of months of last season on loan at the Halliwell Jones Stadium from Wakefield.
He’s helped out in the forward ranks – where the Wolves have lost Tom Mikaele for a second time – by Lachlan Fitzgibbon and Zane Musgrove, signed from Newcastle and St George Illawarra respectively with almost 200 NRL appearances between them.
Sam Powell and Brad Dwyer have swelled the hooker ranks, to complement the improving Danny Walker as long-serving Daryl Clark moves on to St Helens, while Rodrick Tai has been signed from PNG Hunters to bring some heft to the backline, as could young Wesley Bruines from Saints.
“It’s a clean slate. Regardless of what I’ve recruited and what I’ve not recruited, what you saw at the back end of the year from the Warrington Wolves team was a team with spirit, and I can certainly work with that,” adds Burgess.
“The recruitment will be something we focus on moving forward, but what we have here is a clean page. There are 17 spots every week up for grabs.”
Burgess will be working closely alongside Gary Chambers, who took interim charge of the team for the conclusion of last season after Powell’s exit and he has now stepped into a director of rugby role.
Chambers, who bleeds primrose and blue, having spent his whole playing career with Warrington and coached in all manner of different roles there since retiring as a player, has become a central figure and the relationship with Burgess was established from the moment he got the coach’s job.
“Gary, since that day, has been great. I was just on call as and when needed,” says Burgess.
“I’m a really passionate guy. As soon as I was appointed, I felt connected instantly to the club, so I was trying to lend a bit of weight.
“But also I had to be realistic, I was on the other side of the world, so you’ve got to be careful how much you do and don’t do.
“I was living in two time zones for a while! I’m glad I don’t have to do that any more. There wasn’t much sleep in those four or five weeks.”
Burgess is honest enough to admit that, until taking the role, he had not been an avid viewer of Super League in all the years he had been away.
“I’ve not watched a lot of it – you’re just watching the big games, a couple of games a week,” he adds.
“But ever since I got the job I’m watching three or four games a week. You’re so busy watching the NRL when you’re in there and it’s a cut-throat business.
“I’m learning. Do I know it inside out? No I don’t. But I will do by the time we get to game one.”
He’s certainly ‘been there and done it’ since last participating in Super League when he was aged 20. He won the NRL Grand Final (and Clive Churchill Medal) in 2014, crossed codes to play for England in rugby union’s World Cup the following year, and captained England to the World Cup Final in his favoured code in 2017.
But he knows that all those playing accomplishments won’t necessarily translate into the coaching arena.
“My profile isn’t going to help my coaching. You’ve got to do your job. You’ve got to connect with the players and build that trust,” he says.
“I’ve got a good feeling about it. I won’t make any bold statements though, because that’s not going to help me or the team.
“We’ve got plenty of hard work to do between now and the start of the season, and once that starts, a lot of hard work through the season.”
Nor does he expect respect to be a given just because of his playing achievements: “For me, it’s about being authentic.
“I’m not going to sit here and pretend I’m Wayne Bennett (Burgess’ former England coach). I’m my own coach.
“I’ll learn and listen. I’ll also follow instincts in the way I want to coach.
“I’ve had a small bit of experience and I think that might also be in my favour. I’m not trapped in any old ways of doing things.
“I’ve a fresh mind with a fresh approach. And I’ll have a fresh relationship with the players.”
For all the recent grumbles, this is a club full of potential, not one in crisis. They secured a provisional Grade A rating for 2024, with the Wolves ranked fifth out of all professional sides.
They attract strong crowds to a quality venue they can call their own, are among the most active digitally, and spend in pursuit of success – in other words, exactly the sort of club IMG want.
That leaves Burgess to worry entirely about the fortunes of the first team, assisted by the retained Richard Marshall and the promising addition of former player Martin Gleeson, not long ago part of the England rugby union set-up.
Burgess adds: “You can see why the club is in a great position. It just needs a bit of work to be done in the playing department, and that’ll be my focus.”
A good job, as it will need his full attention.