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The 2016 whitewash of the Wallabies remains a seminal moment in Eddie Jones’ tenure as England head coach. But, while Danny Care and the Vunipola brothers have been recalled for another crack at Australia this summer, two more veterans of that tour find themselves in decidedly different positions.
Luther Burrell freely admits that he has not been the same since his humiliation Down Under six years ago, when George Ford replaced him 28 minutes into the first Test. We will come on to those haunting memories later. Burrell has spent his morning on the local athletics track before meeting Mike Brown for an upper-body strength session.
Both men have been let go by Newcastle Falcons, joining a swathe of players exiting the Premiership. Dean Richards ended a spell of uncertainty around six weeks before the end of last season by informing Burrell that money was too tight. Initially, the reaction was straightforward. Burrell vowed to give Newcastle his all when selected while “getting on the blower” to prospective employers. Then, however, the consequences of a bad injury were spelled out by a friend.
“We were in April time,” Burrell says. “There were only a handful of games left on this artificial pitch at Newcastle and I had all of this craziness running through my mind. I’ve never gone into a game thinking: ‘Don’t get injured’. It was a really difficult hurdle because it could have ruled me out or even cut down what money I could get if someone were to come in for me.”
Another deal, most likely with an overseas team, is the hope. Burrell admits that it is helpful having Brown in a similar predicament. England’s most-capped full-back is fiercely determined to be picked up. As fortunate peers enjoy their holidays with teams to return to, unattached individuals must stay sharp. Understandably, Burrell describes the situation brought on by tightening budgets as “brutal”. Joel Hodgson and Marco Fuser, an established fly-half and an Italy international, are two others to be leaving Newcastle.
Burrell, who scored four tries over 15 caps between 2014 and 2016, is also wary of being undercut. He is proud of his CV, which features a Premiership and European Challenge Cup double in 2014 with Northampton Saints. The 34-year-old centre has various pursuits to fall back on, not least a website – synergywithlutherburrell.com– that aims to harness his code-hopping exploits to advise others.
“I’m not that desperate,” Burrell adds. “I have other things going on in my life that excite me. I’m not going to be defined as ‘Luther Burrell, rugby player’. I’ve got a wealth of experience and I can still do a very good job for a team, wherever that may be.
“But we constantly put our bodies on the line in this job and it is savage. You can see how brutal it can be with career-ending injuries and the long-lasting effect of these concussions, depression. I don’t want to be underpaid to go out on the weekend and get my blummin’ head kicked in. You have younger players paid next to nothing. I’ve been there and I don’t need to go back.”
The sense of self-worth is heartening when one reflects on the past. Back in 2016, with Australia leading England 10-6 in Brisbane, significant psychological trauma was triggered.
“Can I be honest?” he asks. “That had a long-lasting effect on me like people will never, ever understand.”
Just over nine months prior to that, Burrell had missed out on selection for the 2015 World Cup despite a strong Six Nations that year. Sam Burgess, on the other hand, was included and a “ridiculous sideshow” followed.
“Still, to this day, people mention that,” Burrell continues. “It’s seven years later. Jim Mallinder and the guys at Northampton were fantastic. But not one single person from the RFU or England ever reached out to me to see how I was. I dropped off the face of the Earth because I was in a really, really bad place.
“I managed to get myself back into a decent bit of form and back into the England set-up and had a good game against Wales before the tour of Australia. Bang, Eddie asks me to jump on the plane. The whole media thing is: ‘Can you believe, post-World Cup, he’s back?’ Still, no one’s asking if I’m OK or how I managed to pull myself out.”
Jones started Burrell with Owen Farrell at fly-half but England began badly. Bernard Foley sliced through for what would have been Australia’s third try before officials spotted an obstruction that caused it to be disallowed. That was the cue for Burrell to be hooked.
“I can remember Jonathan Joseph asking ‘Are you going off?’ Apparently, I was. As I sat on the bench, I could have cried. I was heartbroken. My heart was in my stomach because I knew what was going to follow and how it was going to be portrayed.
“I had no real idea why at that point while I was sat on the bench. And it set me off again, mentally. It was like ‘Wow, the whole of rugby has seen this’. I couldn’t remember whether I’d missed a tackle or not.”
History is written by the victors and collateral damage can be overlooked in the aftermath. England won 38-29, setting the tone for a fine series triumph, and Jones gave a speech in the Suncorp Stadium changing rooms that inadvertently worsened matters.
“He said ‘make sure you get around Luther’,” says Burrell, who was told that his prompt removal was due to a poor defensive read. “I was like: ‘I don’t need that. That’s even worse!’ It drew more attention to me. I’m sure he was trying to make sure I was OK, but I wasn’t OK – especially after what I’d come out of over the past 18 months.
“For the rest of the tour, I had to try to train and help the team get better. I was out and someone came in for me and Faz and George played together. That was fine, they wanted that axis. But I wasn’t even on the bench, so what had I done in 30 minutes that was so much of a bombshell that I was never to be seen again?”
England shifted to a six-two split of forwards to backs on the bench for Tests two and three. Ford and Farrell, at 10 and 12, offered more kicking outlets and teased Australia around the field. Elliot Daly covered the midfield and outside backs in the No 23 shirt. Burrell was not the only Saint to be spurned. Teimana Harrison also suffered a first-half yanking just half an hour into the third Test. The back-row re-shuffle was hailed as another decisive tactical move from Jones when England sealed the clean-sweep.
Ben Te’o, who had travelled to Australia to bed in after leaving Leinster, emerged the next season as a hard-running deputy for Manu Tuilagi. That effectively ended Burrell’s days as an international.
“It felt like ‘your face doesn’t fit, all the best’. I had to suck that up and, again, pull myself out of a dark pit. It was hell and I don’t think I’ve been the same player since. I’ve never had the opportunity to play rugby with a smile on my face in a winning side.”
After arriving at Northampton in 2018, director of rugby Chris Boyd made a point of sympathising with Burrell over the infamous substitution. The latter felt a lump in his throat. He appreciated the conversation because no other coaches had broached such a delicate topic.
Burrell hired a life coach, Tim Martin, at the end of 2015 and still speaks to him most days. The conversations range between quick catch-ups and longer chats when anxiety is gnawing. Having joined Newcastle following a short stint in rugby league with Warrington Wolves, Burrell possesses a broad perspective. Earlier this month, Kyle Sinckler posted a tweet claiming that 100 Premiership players would be without a club for the 2022-23 campaign. As one of those himself, Burrell paused for thought.
“When Kyle Sinckler put out his tweet, I asked myself whether the clubs could do more,” he says. “It’s a tough question, because the clubs are also run by their boards, who are driven by making money… which is partly why we’re in this position anyway.
“Could they do more? I think so, yes. Are they obliged to do more? I don’t feel they are. With rugby in the position it’s in, which is a mess, let’s be honest, are clubs going to go above and beyond with these players getting released? I don’t really think all of them are because you’re all on a conveyor belt and when your time’s done it’s: ‘Bang, see you later. Next one in’. That’s how it is.”
Whether or not another club do table an offer, Burrell is content with his lot, ready for the “real world” and eager to pass on what professional sport has taught him – 2016 and all. In such a tricky time, the sport would do well to listen.