The Whitening of the Wallabies in 2016 remains a seminal moment in Eddie Jones’ tenure as England manager. But while Danny Care and the Vunipola brothers were called up for another opportunity in Australia this summer, two more veterans of that tour find themselves in decidedly different positions.
Luther Burrell freely admits that he hasn’t been the same since his Down Under humiliation six years ago, when George Ford replaced him in the 28th minute of the first test. We’ll come back to those frightening memories later. Burrell spent the morning at the local running track before meeting Mike Brown for an upper-body strength session.
Both were released by the Newcastle Falcons, joining a slew of players departing the Premiership. Dean Richards ended a period of uncertainty that lasted about six weeks before the end of last season by informing Burrell that money was very tight. Initially, the reaction was direct. Burrell vowed to give Newcastle his all when selected while “getting on the fan” for potential employers. Then, however, the consequences of a serious injury were explained by a friend.
“It was April,” says Burrell. “There were only a handful of games on this artificial field in Newcastle and I had all this madness running through my mind. I’ve never entered a game thinking, ‘Don’t get hurt’. It was a very difficult hurdle because it could have discarded me or even reduced the money I could get if someone came to pick me up.”
Another deal, probably with a foreign team, is hope. Burrell admits it’s helpful to have Brown in a similar situation. England’s most capped full-back is fiercely determined to be signed. While fortunate colleagues enjoy their vacation with teams to return to, detached individuals must remain vigilant. Understandably, Burrell describes the situation brought about by the tightening of budgets as “brutal”. Joel Hodgson and Marco Fuser, an established midfielder and an Italy international, are two others who will leave Newcastle.
Burrell, who scored four tries in 15 games between 2014 and 2016, also fears he will be undercut. He is proud of his resume, which features a Premiership and European Challenge Cup double in 2014 with Northampton Saints. The 34-year-old center has a number of activities to turn to, including a website – synergywithlutherburrell.com – that aims to leverage its code-hopping exploits to advise others.
“I’m not that desperate,” adds Burrell. “I have other things going on in my life that excite me. I will not be defined as ‘Luther Burrell, rugby player’. I have a lot of experience and I can still do a really good job for a team, wherever it is.
“But we constantly put our bodies at risk in this job and it’s wild. You can see how brutal it can be with career-ending injuries and the lasting effect of those concussions, depression. I don’t want to be underpaid to go out on the weekend and get my head kicked. 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 encouraging when reflecting on the past. In 2016, with Australia leading England 10-6 in Brisbane, significant psychological trauma was triggered.
“Can I be honest?” he asks. “It had a lasting effect on me that people will never understand.”
Just over nine months prior to that, Burrell had missed the 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” ensued.
“Still, to this day, people mention it,” Burrell continues. “It’s seven years later. Jim Mallinder and the Northampton guys were fantastic. But not a single person from the RFU or England ever came to me to see how I was doing. I left the face of the Earth because I was in a really, really bad place.
“I was able to get back in good shape and get back to the England setup and had a good game against Wales before the Australia tour. Bang, Eddie asks me to get on the plane. The whole media thing is, ‘Do you believe that, post-World Cup, he’s back?’ Still, no one is asking if I’m okay or how I managed to get rid of it.”
Jones started Burrell with Owen Farrell in the second half, but England started badly. Bernard Foley made what would be Australia’s third attempt before authorities detected an obstruction which caused it to be overturned. That was Burrell’s cue to get hooked.
“I remember Jonathan Joseph asking ‘Are you going out?’ 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 coming next and how it would be portrayed.
“I had no real idea why at that moment as I sat on the bench. And that triggered me again, mentally. It was like ‘Wow, all rugby saw this’. I couldn’t remember if I missed a tackle or not.”
History is written by the victors and collateral damage can be ignored in the aftermath. England won 38-29, setting the tone for a beautiful series triumph, and Jones delivered a speech in the dressing room at Suncorp Stadium that inadvertently made matters worse.
“He said ‘make sure you get around Luther,'” says Burrell, who was told his immediate removal was due to defensive misreading. “I was like, ‘I don’t need this. This is even worse! It caught my attention. I’m sure he was trying to make sure I was okay, but I wasn’t okay — especially after what I’d been leaving for the last 18 months.
“For the rest of the tour I had to try to train and help the team improve. I was out and someone came up to me and Faz and George played together. All right, they wanted that axle. But I wasn’t even on the bench, so what did I do in 30 minutes that was a bomb that was never seen again?”
England switched to a six-two split from forwards to defenders on the bench for Tests two and three. Ford and Farrell, aged 10 and 12, provided more kicking opportunities and teased Australia around the field. Elliot Daly covered midfield and flanks with the number 23 shirt. Burrell wasn’t the only saint to be despised. Teimana Harrison also suffered a pull in the first half just half an hour into the third test. The change in the back line was hailed as another decisive tactical move by Jones as England sealed the cleanup.
Ben Te’o, who traveled to Australia to sleep after leaving Leinster, emerged the following season as a deputy to Manu Tuilagi. This effectively ended Burrell’s days as an international.
“It felt like ‘your face doesn’t fit, all good.’ I had to swallow it 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 never had the opportunity to play rugby with a smile on my face on a winning side.”
After arriving at Northampton in 2018, rugby director Chris Boyd was keen to sympathize with Burrell for the infamous replacement. The latter felt a lump in his throat. He enjoyed the conversation because no other coach had tackled such a sensitive topic.
Burrell hired a life coach, Tim Martin, in late 2015 and still talks to him most days. Conversations range from quick conversations to longer chats when anxiety is gnawing. Having joined Newcastle after a short stint in rugby league with Warrington Wolves, Burrell has 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 them, Burrell stopped to think.
“When Kyle Sinckler published his tweet, I wondered if clubs could do more,” he says. “It’s a tough question because clubs are also run by their boards, which are driven by making money… and that’s partly why we’re in this position anyway.
“Could they do more? I think so. Are they forced to do more? I don’t feel like they are. With rugby in the position it’s in, what a mess, let’s be honest, do clubs go the extra mile with these players being released? I don’t really think they all are because you’re on a conveyor belt and when your time is up it’s, ‘Bang, see you later. The next in’. That’s how it is.”
Whether or not another club makes an offer, Burrell is pleased with his luck, ready for the “real world” and eager to pass on what professional sport has taught him – 2016 and all. At such a difficult time, sport would do well to listen.