SPORTS COMMENT: Burrell a victim of England’s search for a hero

TREATED HARSHLY - Luther Burrell has been left out of England's World Cup squad
TREATED HARSHLY - Luther Burrell has been left out of England's World Cup squad

There was a sad inevitability about the decision that was confirmed on Thursday afternoon.

It had been coming since last October, and when it arrived there was no element of surprise.

Stuart Lancaster

Stuart Lancaster

Stuart Lancaster announced his 31-man squad for the Rugby World Cup, and there was to be no place for Luther Burrell.

The Saints powerhouse, who has had more than his fair share of disappointment and knock-backs since making his England debut in France in February last year, was out.

His startling rise to prominence, which saw him go from Sale substitute to Saints star after moving to Franklin’s Gardens in the summer of 2012, was to count for nothing.

His 13 England Test appearances, 10 of which have come in the heat of the Six Nations battle, eight of which have ended in wins, were to be rendered meaningless.

Instead, Sam Burgess, the Rugby League star who joined Bath last October, and Exeter’s Henry Slade were selected ahead of him.

Lancaster said the duo had ‘trained the house down’ and could cite their steady showing against the French a couple of weeks ago to justify his selection.

But how much can you really read into training?

And just how effective is a warm-up game against a far from full strength French side, on home soil, as an indicator of ability to perform in rugby’s biggest tournament?

Burrell had impressed in Six Nations matches, where England’s closest rivals wanted to take the heads off the red rose players.

Those are real tests. The ultimate challenge of your ability under pressure, with a trophy on the line.

The recent games against France may carry the Test tag, but they are nowhere near the level of a Six Nations scrap.

Burgess and Slade may have a 100 per cent record for England at Twickenham, having played one, won one.

But so has Burrell.

England have been victorious in all five matches that he has played on home turf.

Ireland, Wales, Italy, Scotland and France have all lost to teams containing Burrell.

Not only that, but he was involved in one of England’s best wins of recent times, at the Millennium Stadium in February.

On that night, the pairing of Burrell with Jonathan Joseph put in a tour de force.

Joseph hogged the headlines for his try-scoring heroics, but there were signs of a real understanding between the pair.

It was a partnership that those in attendance believed could grow and flourish.

And Burrell’s wide smile afterwards suggested he felt it could be the start of something good.

Yet six months on, his fate was sealed by last Saturday’s game in Paris, which was played in the context of the 27-year-old being under immense pressure.

He was told that he must impress by Lancaster because Burgess and Slade had helped England beat a largely second-string Les Blues side.

And that intense scrutiny, against a fired-up French team on their own patch, was never going to see Burrell charge in and win the game for his country.

That, it appeared, was what he needed to do to have a chance of claiming a place in the final 31-man squad.

He needed to show he could be a hero, because there is a perception that is what Burgess is.

Or at least that was what he was in rugby league.

But the Bath poster boy has shown no real signs of translating that to union, with even his club deciding that his best position was in the back row rather than at centre.

So he has been judged on what he could do rather than what he has shown he can do.

It is yet another example of this nation’s yearning for a national hero.

Players are mentally dressed in robes and anointed as the king of the country’s chances at a particular tournament.

People are desperate to pin their hopes on someone.

In football, the likes of David Beckham and Wayne Rooney have taken on the mantle, with prayers said for them to recover from injuries ahead of major tournaments.

At Wimbledon, the fans put all their eggs in Tim Henman’s basket before Andy Murray adopted the role of saviour.

And so it seems that rugby is the same.

England want Burgess to be their gladiator, which is ironic considering he is good friends with Russell Crowe, who starred in the film of that name.

And so logic and past form - except for in training, it seems - goes out of the window.

For Burrell, that will be desperately hard to take.

But no matter how hard he tries, the unassuming northern boy, who once turned out for the West Indies sevens team, will never be able to grab the glamour of Burgess.

Slade, too, is seen to have that star quality, and he had at least proved that he is capable of producing it for Exeter.

Age is also on his side, with 22-year-old one of the youngest members of this squad.

But none of that will be of any consolation to Burrell, who will now once again need to go back and do what he does best for his club.

You can bet he will do that, and when the Aviva Premiership season starts on October 16 - the same weekend as the World Cup quarter-finals - he will take a leading role for Saints.

It is just a shame that he has not been given the chance to do it for England on the biggest stage of all.