Burgo spreading Rugby gospel in the Apple Isle

By Pete Fairbairn, 23.08.16

After hanging up his boots for the last time three months ago, former Wallaby scrumhalf Luke Burgess has quickly transitioned into the next chapter of his life; or should we say, chapters.

You see, Burgess has returned to Australia with wife Emilie and daughters Freya (3) and Eloise (2) and has begun work as the Tasmanian Rugby Union’s (TRU) Development Manager, but he has also applied to study medicine as well.

After a career which has taken in Super Rugby contracts in Canberra, Melbourne and Sydney, as well as spells in South-Western France (Toulouse) and Northern Italy (Zebre), Hobart seems an unlikely next port of call, but as ‘Burgo’ explains it was time for him to allow Emilie to pursue her career after she’d supported his professional Rugby career as it took them across the world.

“I met Emilie in Sydney in 2008, but she’s Tasmanian and we’ve spent a lot of time down here over the past eight years,” he said. “We’ve always enjoyed regional areas and talked about living in either Tasmania or Newcastle, where my parents are, once Rugby finished up.

“Emilie is a Sports Dietician, and the opportunity came up for her to come home and take on a great role with Cricket Tasmania. She’s really enjoying the role, and being in Hobart is a really good fit for our young family. Emilie had put her career on the back burner at times over the journey and been really patient with my Rugby career, and I’m so lucky to have had her support over the years, and now I’m excited to see her develop her career further.”

So with the move to Tasmania decided, the next step for Luke was working out what he was going to do. As somebody who prioritised studying throughout his eleven-year professional career, Burgess was always going to have an idea what to do next and he decided to pursue a career in medicine by studying for and then sitting an undergraduate medical entry exam.

“I spent a month preparing for that exam and then once that was done I was sitting back scratching my head and annoying my wife, so she said you’ve got to get out and get a job!

“I met up with Michael Ryan (TRU President) and he was really receptive when I asked if I could help the Union out in any way, and he explained that a vacancy had just arisen as Development Manager if I wanted to see how I’d go in the role.

“Clearly it’s a great opportunity to help grow Rugby in a different part of Australia and as I’ve just finished a business degree a couple of months ago it was a good opportunity to put that to use and work out how to help grow the game, but in a sustainable way. Obviously I also have a passion for Rugby, so it fits in really well with where I am it.

“In regards to my medical ambitions, right from the outset the TRU were really receptive; being accepted into medicine is not guaranteed and it’s a long process, so this is a great thing to do right now.”

Burgess has always enjoyed interacting with kids during Rugby clinics while a professional player, so having the opportunity to work closely with children for a living appealed to him as well, as well as the opportunity to use his experience in Melbourne with the Rebels to grow the game in a non-traditional Rugby state.

“It’s the most rewarding part of the job, hanging with kids and seeing them find out about Rugby for the first time,” he told RUPA. “My personal understanding of Rugby and its place in Australian sport has been deepened by my experience in Melbourne, where AFL is number one. I believe that there’s a sport for everyone and I think that Rugby complements a lot of other sports, so I think understanding how those dynamics work in Australia is quite important and certainly is something I can bring to the job even though I’m originally from the Rugby heartland.”

Burgess’ diligent approach to study throughout the entirety of his Rugby career has certainly aided his transition after retirement, and he will continue to access RUPA Training & Education grants as he’s eligible moving forward.

“While I was playing, I always tried to do something outside of Rugby,” he said. “I always knew I needed something else, and I’ve always taken advantage of RUPA’s ability to assist with that. I started at the Brumbies with (former RUPA Player Development Manager) Sue Crawford and she helped me with a number of challenges, and then moving through the other franchises I’ve always had fantastic support.

“Financially, RUPA’s support with grants has been great; as long as you’re putting the work in and getting the results in your study and meeting the protocols, it really is such a great system.

“The support network that’s built into RUPA understands the challenges of being a professional Rugby player and even now when I’m retired, I’ll still be drawing on RUPA’s support for a couple of years which is really reassuring.”

Burgess made over 80 Super Rugby appearances with the Brumbies (2005-2007), Waratahs (2008-2011) and Rebels (2013-2015), as well as playing for the Wallabies on 37 occasions including the 2011 Rugby World Cup.

He also won the Top 14 with Toulouse in 2012, and finished his career with Zebre playing in the Pro12 and European Challenge Cup. Burgess said a final year in Europe with his young family was the perfect way to put a full stop on his career.

“It was a great year in Italy, being able to go and experience Rugby within such a rich culture,” Burgess said. “We were able to learn about the region, learn about the people and live amongst a tomato farm twenty minutes south of Parma; it was an incredible experience. That’s not just for me either; it was great for my family as well as they learnt another language and experienced another wonderful culture.

“The Rugby in Italy had its challenges with finances and competition structure, but it’s like that all over the world, and I got to meet some amazing people that I’ll keep in contact with for the rest of my life. I loved every second of it, and got to meet and play with one of the greats of the game in Mils Muliaina.”

Rugby is changing, and with it many young Australian professionals are looking for European opportunities earlier than they ever have before, when it was traditionally the destination for those reaching the end of their careers. Whether wanting to experience a new culture and travel the world, or simply due to the financial incentives on offer, there’s more Australians plying their trade in professional Rugby competitions abroad than ever before.

The Australian Rugby Union (ARU) has introduced a clause whereby some players in Europe are now eligible for international selection, but Burgess believes Australian Rugby needs to look at the long-term viability of the game in order to compete and provide a financial alternative for those who want to keep playing their Rugby here.

“The reality is that Rugby is a profession and players spend up to a quarter of their working life pursuing it as a career,” Burgess explained. “I’m pleased that the ARU has given guys who’ve made a significant contribution to Australian Rugby the opportunity to earn Wallaby selection from overseas.

“If the ARU wants to compete financially (with the likes of the rich English, French and Japanese competitions), they need to resolve some of the financial issues that mean we’re only looking five years ahead, as opposed to ten, twenty or even thirty years down the line.”

Having had two separate spells in Europe, Burgess can make an argument either way for whether he enjoyed it more at the end of his career or in the middle, but one thing is for certain; he values his time wearing the Wallaby jersey far higher than any of his other achievements.

“Emilie and I experienced a year in France without kids, and that was an amazing and wonderful experience, and then we had a year with our daughters overseas which was wonderful as well,” he said. “Travelling, working and living with kids is challenging enough, but I always saw it as a great opportunity to become quite close as the family; it was really galvanising and I think we’re stronger for the experience.

“The Italians are so incredible with children; there would be old ladies crossing the street to talk to our kids and tell us how beautiful they were and that constant admiration and appreciation for children is probably the thing that made me love Italian people the most.

“The French were amazing as well, such a close knit social community in terms of family and so generous, and when my daughter was born teammates who I could barely communicate with would bring presents and really make us feel welcomed as a family. I’ll just never forget that generosity and that appreciation of my family.

“Ultimately though, if you can go and make the Wallabies there’s nothing like a gold jersey. No amount of money, no amount of trophies, nothing can compare to when you’re wearing that jersey. If you want to move overseas, I suppose it’s about knowing within yourself where your end point is in that (quest for the Wallaby jersey).

“As long as you can walk away happy knowing you did everything for the jersey, and for your Rugby communities and your franchise, that’s what it’s all about.”

Burgess clearly believes that there’s no ‘one size fits all’ approach to when it’s appropriate to look at playing opportunities abroad, but for those who were lucky enough to watch him play and to play alongside and against him, his passion for the game and for representing Australia was certainly evident through his actions on the field.

Now, as he spreads the Rugby gospel across the Apple Isle in the next phase of his career, and continues to wait on the opportunity of the potential next chapter beyond that, that same passion to be successful remains and he wouldn’t have it any other way. That’s just Burgo, and we’ll be watching on.

Pete Fairbairn
Communications Manager
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