For the first time in a long time, Luther Burrell is happy. “Life right now is good, certainly in comparison to the places I’ve been in,” the 33-year-old says as he begins to describe his experiences of a whirlwind two years that have taken him from rugby union to league and back again.
Burrell, who played league as a teenager in his home town of Huddersfield, had big plans for his move to Warrington Wolves in spring 2019. Unlike other players who had switched from union to league in the past, Burrell’s experience of league in his formative years left many believing he would thrive in Super League, and replicate his success in union. “I felt I had everything there to have a really good go at it, but ultimately, it just wasn’t meant to be,” he reflects.
Burrell made only seven Super League appearances for Warrington before requesting his release from the club last September. It is only now, with his future sorted and his playing career back on track, that he is able to look back and reflect upon what went wrong. “It wasn’t that it was one thing in particular, and certainly nothing Warrington did. But I was brought into a team with a lot of depth in the positions, centre and back-row, that I was looking to play. I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but for me, to try and go in there and win the coach’s trust over these established league players was something I was excited about.”
But as the weeks passed, and Burrell struggled to break into Warrington’s first team with no reserve grade to hone his skills, his frustration grew. “There is only so much training and running you can do,” he says. “Did I think that given a good run of games, I could succeed? Of course. But with no opportunities to play anywhere, I started to feel desperately lost.”
The suspension of last year’s Super League campaign in March due to the pandemic afforded Burrell an opportunity to reset and return to Warrington in the summer reinvigorated. But when his chances to play remained limited after the season restarted, Burrell knew he had to force through a change for the good of his career and his wellbeing.
“I was in a really dark place,” he admits. “I’d gone from playing almost every game for Northampton to effectively being the travelling reserve at Warrington, and it just left me in limbo. I went back in after the break and trained the house down, but I still wasn’t getting a look-in and it wasn’t satisfying me. This is a short career, and I wanted to get back to enjoying it. I’d become a professional trainer, which was great for my athletic ability – I’d never been fitter – but my mindset had slipped. I knew I needed to do something.”
So Burrell took a chance on his future, and asked Warrington to terminate his contract. “They were great with me, and understood where I was coming from, but I was stepping into the unknown,” he says. “It would have been too much of a risk going to another Super League club at my age and going through that process again, and I knew deep down I wanted to get back to the game I knew. My agent warned me that it might be after the season had started when I’d get a deal, but within 24 hours of leaving Warrington clubs were coming forward. It made me feel valued and wanted.”
Burrell eventually settled for Newcastle Falcons, signing a two-year deal with the Premiership newcomers. He has become a regular in Dean Richards’ side, and has quickly settled back into the game in which he originally made his name. “The fit couldn’t be better – working with Dean is incredible,” he says. “I come back to rugby union as a better person and player, despite it not working out in league. I’ve got seven Super League games under my belt, I’ve experienced another sport and I wouldn’t be where I am now without going to Warrington. Did it work out? No, clearly, but it’s all added to my rugby CV, if you like.”
The move to Newcastle has clearly reignited a fire inside Burrell. He still believes he has plenty to achieve as a union player: not least a determination to add to the 15 caps he won with England during his first spell in the game and play for his country in front of his young children for the first time. “It’s the top of every sportsman’s list, to play for your country,” he says. “I was fortunate enough to do that but if my kids could witness it … that would be special.
‘If Eddie [Jones] thought I could add value to the team, that would be amazing. Of course it’ll be tough, but I’ll never say never until someone tells me it’s categorically out of the equation.”
Now finally settled once again after a turbulent two years, are there any regrets for Burrell? “None whatsoever,” he maintains. “It would have been great if I’d helped Warrington win Super League, but it wasn’t to be. But I’m so happy now at Newcastle, and I can look back and say I gave it a go. But now I’m back in the game I love, and there’s still plenty left in the tank.”