Departing star Sam Burgess has defended the NRL after accepting the International Player of the Year award before linking with rugby.
Moments after accepting the RLIF International Player of the Year award, Sam Burgess defended the NRL despite becoming the third superstar to leave the code this year.
In a bittersweet sight for NRL boss Dave Smith who stood nearby, Burgess held aloft the international award at a Brisbane luncheon on Thursday before flying out for English rugby club Bath.
It capped a stunning 2014 that included his Clive Churchill Medal-winning heroics with a fractured cheekbone in South Sydney’s long awaited NRL premiership triumph.
Critics believed Smith could have done more with his new discretionary powers to hold onto Burgess as well as Jarryd Hayne (NFL) and Sonny Bill Williams (rugby).
But before Smith could defend himself, Burgess stood up for the NRL.
“I don’t think it has anything to do with the game,” he said of the high profile exits.
“I think it is more that players have purely become more ambitious.
“It is just a matter of players getting to such an elite level now they have opened up so many doors.
“Good luck to everyone going down different pathways but I think once you play rugby league it will always hold a special place in your heart.”
If Smith held any hard feelings it did not surface on Thursday after Burgess outpointed a field including Hayne, Greg Inglis and compatriot James Graham to become the first Englishman to claim the international honour.
“He has made such a wonderful contribution …but he is chasing his dreams and no one can stop someone doing that,” he said.
“I think he deserves that award.
“It’s sad to see him go but good luck to him.”
Burgess may have been the envy of players at the awards but admitted he felt jealous before flying out for England on Tuesday.
Burgess has spent time with his brothers George and Tom in England’s Four Nations squad ahead of Saturday’s opener against Samoa in Brisbane.
“I am quite jealous not to be a part of it with the England team,” he said.
“You can never rule it (an NRL return) out but for the moment I will sit back and relax and watch the Four Nations.”
Not that he plans on taking it easy for long.
Burgess will have a crash course on rugby once he arrives in England next week – an education some say may lead to a shock 2015 Rugby World Cup nod.
“I understand I have a huge challenge,” he said.
“First and foremost I want to earn the respect of my teammates at Bath.
“I will start at the bottom and work my way up.”
Burgess’ departure to England was delayed after having metal plates inserted into his face following a brutal NRL grand final.
And he was almost glad after the delay ensured he was in Australia to accept the international gong.
“I am quite upset about leaving – it has hit home the last few days,” he said.
“But I am excited about my move.”