The making of Luther Burrell
January 30, 2014
Luther Burrell: soon-to-be England international © PA Photos
In many ways, Luther Burrell is the personification of everything Stuart Lancaster is attempting to mould his England side into. He is powerful, possesses the ability to make a gainline break all of his own accord and is structurally secure; he also hails from the same neck of the woods as Lancaster.
On Saturday Burrell will make his England debut. It's been a rocky road for the Huddersfield-born centre who at times, through his own admission, took solace in his off-field lifestyle as his on-field prospects struggled. But those occurrences are now a thing of the past, a distant part of his life, as he prepares to face France.
While the ever-growing physicality of the players means 6'3" 16st centres are two-a-penny in the Premiership, Burrell's skillset has seen him emerge from the pack and into the England reckoning. Burrell has always been blessed with bulk and his rugby education started at Huddersfield RUFC back in 1996 under the tutelage of Paul Sharrock.
"I started coaching him at Under-10s all the way through to Under-16s," Sharrock told ESPN. "He had a very good pass off both hands and in some cases far too good for our plays as he could wang the ball 20-odd metres when he was at Under-11 level. He was very agile, big and at that age other people couldn't stop him so he was our lead strike runner."
His standalone ability was a double-edged sword at that stage. "In some ways he held the side back a bit as if he got the ball, he just scored which meant the rest of them didn't develop," Sharrock said. "At the same time, he was a very lazy defender as he didn't have to do a lot of defending as no-one wanted to go near him."
When a player at school level is rampaging through defences with ease and generally causing havoc, it is inevitable that he will catch the eye. Huddersfield fell under the auspices of the Leeds branch of the RFU academy who, of all people, had Lancaster at the helm.
Ahead of a match for England Under-19 in 2006 © Getty Images
"When Stuart came across him, the defence was his focus for improvement," Sharrock said. "He was close to the total player but that was the only aspect that troubled him."
At first, Lancaster did not call Burrell into the academy, a decision with outraged his mother. An email was sent to Lancaster and he took a second look at Burrell. "He's someone I've known for a long time," Lancaster said. "I first met Luther when he was 14 or 15. He was playing at Huddersfield but joined one of the Elite Playing Development Centres. He joined the west one and from there I brought him into the academy at Leeds so I've coached him for a number of years."
Raw ability is one third of what Lancaster looked for in a young player but any thought of whether they will be an international is saved for a later moment in the individual's development. "I don't think you realise you're dealing with a Test prospect at that age, that usually comes around when they are 19, 20 or 21 and at that stage that usually surrounds whether they will make it as a Test player.
"At 14 or 15 you can see potential. It's sometimes physical, mental or technical but on occasions players have all three aspects. Luther, while he was raw, had great physical potential, mentally he was tough and technically he had a good skillset and that's what gave him the chance to really develop into a professional player."
Burrell was signed into the Leeds academy alongside Huddersfield friend and now Wasps lock Kearnan Myall but while he had a team in Leeds, he struggled to find his feet.
Over the course of five years on his contract from 2006 to 2011 he made 41 appearances for Leeds. These games were interspersed with loan spells at Sedgley Park in 2008 and Otley a year later offering some first-team rugby, albeit in the less glamorous lower echelons of the league. It just wasn't clicking. He even toyed with league and played a game for the Leeds Rhinos reserves against Hull in July 2008.
It was at that time that Lancaster left Leeds after two years in the role of director of rugby for a job at the RFU. Andy Key and Neil Back took on the reins and Burrell found himself in and out of the team.
"When we turned up, we had heard about Luther but at that time he was making the transition into the senior squad," Key said. "He'd played a bit the season before and had the ability to step up but like a lot of good young kids, he lacked development in other areas.
On duty for the West Indies © Getty Images
"When we turned up he had played a bit of league and he damaged his foot so we had to wait a while to see him in action and other players leaped ahead of him in the pecking order. But what we realised was he had the deft touches league players have and the running lines but it was a case of seeing how competitive he was around the park and whether he saw the game like a union player.
"I think he'd be the first to admit that when we first arrived, it was his temperament to the game which needed working on and understanding the transition from being a young player to a professional and the approach required to take the next step up. But he developed into a man who understood what he needed to do.
"I can always remember one game away at London Irish that was as if it was him proving to us that he could do it and more importantly to himself that he could be a professional player. We played him alongside Seru Rabeni in the centres and he showed how physical he could be when it was used correctly. He was superb and that was the benchmark for him."
In 2009 he played Sevens for the West Indies but he soon made the necessary impact in the XV game. In what turned out to be his final season at Leeds, the 2010-11 campaign, Burrell finally got a run of starts under his belt and that potential was being turned into serious ability. Then came the move that helped accelerate his career.
He swapped Leeds for Sale and after the 2011-12 season in which he made 12 appearances, Northampton snapped him up. It was at Franklin's Gardens where he has realised his potential. In two seasons at the Saints he has made 40 appearances, one shy of his five-season effort at Leeds.
Burrell is the perfect illustration of just how much work goes into one player to make them an international - like a book there are plenty of outside influences that join to form one collective creature.
When Burrell takes to the Paris pitch on Saturday, you could forgive a few individuals if they take stock and feel an element of pride. For Lancaster, you expect there will be some fleeting emotion before the focus returns to the task in hand.
"I've always been hopeful that he would be an England player," Lancaster said. "The moment I really felt he would have a future in the game was when Leeds Academy played against the England Under-19s back in 2006. Luther played extremely well considering he hadn't played anything near international rugby as an age-grade player. He came through and that was a big step for him. He's had a bit of a rollercoaster ride since then but his confidence has grown and has delivered on the European stage."
Come 5pm on Saturday as England soak in the Stade de France atmosphere, there will also be some keen viewers back in Huddersfield, no more so than Sharrock.
"I think he has a better skillset than Manu Tuilagi and has a touch more pace," Sharrock concluded. "If he plays well he can hold his position. Well... that's what I hope anyway."
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.
Proposals to remove promotion and relegation from the Aviva Premiership would be for the good of the game overall, argues John Taylor
Ireland have the world sitting up and taking notice - and rugby's structure in Europe will aid their Rugby World Cup bid, writes John Mitchell
Where does Italy's win over Scotland rank among their successes in the Six Nations? Scrum Sevens investigates
The tone was set early on in Dublin as a more clinical Ireland made England pay. All is not lost, however, argues Phil Vickery