For the time that Sam Burgess and Sonny Bill Williams were in the NRL together, we were treated to two of the best forwards that the NRL has seen in competition with each other. Not only did they go to battle against each other on the field but they shared certain traits and publicity which made the competition between the two more interesting than the competition between Paul Gallen and Corey Parker for example.
This came to a climax when it was announced that Burgess, like SBW, would try his hand at rugby. SBW was following the lead of Brad Thorn and the likes of Wendell Sailor and Lote Tuqiri while it always felt like Burgess was following the path that SBW had ventured down. Burgess had watched SBW juggle rugby and rugby league careers and do so rather well, so Burgess had a go at it.
Burgess said that his heart wasn't in rugby, which is the first barrier holding back potential code-hoppers. I imagine that if you ask SBW where his heart lies whether it's rugby or rugby league, he wouldn't know and that SBW would possibly say that he loves both equally.
The path that Burgess ventured down, hit a fork in the road as soon as he had decided to head down the rugby path. SBW got to this stage (after the Toulon hibernation) and decided, in conjunction with the New Zealand Rugby Union, various coaches and his manager that he would start in the ITM Cup and work his way up through the ranks, hopefully resulting in playing for the All Blacks. If SBW's heart wasn't in rugby at this stage then playing in the ITM Cup and being entrenched in Aotearoa's rugby culture (which makes the All Blacks so good) would certainly help him develop that love for rugby.
SBW appeared to grab the slow-cooker and let it simmer, safe in the knowledge that if he ticked all the necessary boxes, he'd be in a great position to enjoy sustained success in rugby.
Things couldn't have been more different for Burgess, who gave himself little time to fully come to grips with rugby. SBW had a season of ITM Cup rugby and then a Super Rugby season, while Burgess had one season with Bath. This might not have been such a big factor had there been any clarity around Burgess' role within rugby.
Bath were playing Burgess as a flanker, while England used Burgess in the midfield.
Imagine the SBW story if it involved him playing as a flanker for Canterbury and then a second-five for the All Blacks. You might struggle to actually imagine that, because it would never happen. Burgess prepared for the Rugby World Cup by using his only season of rugby playing in the forwards, hence one season was never going to be enough.
To lay all the blame on Burgess would be wrong. Burgess played his part in naively thinking that he could switch to rugby and succeed with little foundations laid, but this situation puts the confusing nature of English rugby in the spotlight. England and Bath might have laid a plan out for Burgess, which would have been the smart thing to do (the flanker/midfield issue suggests they didn't) and the structure of rugby in England limits the ability of the national union and clubs to align. Burgess must surely have had good intentions when he moved to rugby and Burgess' rugby excursion would have been much different had there been some sort/a teeny-weeny bit of clarity about his role in English rugby.
One player went the longer route and took the time to establishing himself in rugby, one went for the hard and fast glory. The hard and fast path only works when there's clarity not confusion and you could argue that the hard and fast path breeds confusion, which is why Sonny Bill Williams is a code-hopping legend and Sam Burgess is now just an NRL player.