Can Sam Burgess conquer rugby union?

When a Gladiator describes someone as “inspirational”, you can be sure they must be a little bit special.

That’s what happened earlier this week, when Maximus himself – actor Russell Crowe – spoke of his respect for rugby league player Sam Burgess.

The 25-year-old Burgess, rugby league’s shining light, had just announced his switch to rugby union and a £500,000-a-year contract with Bath.

As co-owner of Burgess’s current team, the South Sydney Rabbitohs, Crowe was explaining why he had reluctantly allowed his star player to leave at the end of the NRL season.

Ex-Bradford Bulls forward Burgess has already been tipped to play for England at rugby union.

As one of the few players to have been world-class at both codes of the game, Jonathan Davies is well placed to assess how Burgess will fare in union.

“There’s no question about Sam’s attitude and ability,” explains the BBC commentator, who represented Wales at rugby union and Great Britain at league. “He’s big, powerful and fast; he can offload brilliantly; and he’s got good footwork – he’s the real deal.

“Given time and the right advice he will be a success, I’ve got no doubt about that.”

Davies, however, questions whether Burgess can fully adapt to union in time for the 2015 World Cup.

The player arrives at Bath in October and the World Cup will be less than a year later. Bath head coach Mike Ford has admitted he doesn’t even know Burgess’s best position in union yet.

“Whether he’s got the time to adapt in time for the World Cup is the problem,” says Davies. “I went from union to league – going the other way is a lot more difficult.

“I think Sam will play at inside centre in union and there are some big differences there compared to what he’s used to.

“If you’re in possession of the ball in league, you can kick or go into the tackle. Then the game re-starts.

“Union brings additional decision making in the tackle area with the ruck and maul.”

There are significant cross-code success stories for Burgess to take inspiration from. Most notable of all is probably winger Jason Robinson, who starred for Great Britain at league before winning the 2003 Rugby World Cup with England at union.

There are also some well-publicised failures, but Davies says the player Burgess should study most closely is Sonny Bill Williams, who swapped league for union and won the 2011 World Cup with New Zealand.

“Sam is up there in Sonny Bill’s class,” argues the BBC broadcaster. “He has age on his side and can follow Sonny Bill’s lead. He was a bit lost at the start of his union career but adapted well and played to his strengths.

“I’ve no doubt Sam will be successful. But whether he has time for the 2015 World Cup, I’m not so sure.”

Only time will tell if the inspirational Burgess will emerge as a conquering hero in union, just as he is in league.