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'I always believed I was meant to be in the side': Burns reflects on 100-game milestone

There was once a time in Sam Burns’ career when he was genuinely unsure if he would ever become a milestone player within Hostplus Cup.

Looking back at the Sunshine Coast Falcons forward’s trajectory through the game, it’s funny to think that someone so consistent and so dedicated wouldn’t achieve these sorts of accolades.

This weekend, the popular Burns will do just that, when he celebrates game 100 in front of a home crowd at Sunshine Coast Stadium, named captain for the special occasion against the Townsville Blackhawks.

But at the start of his career, Burns – a one-club man – couldn’t seem to crack into the Falcons’ Cup side on regular basis.

The now 27-year-old made an unexpected Cup debut fresh out of the Melbourne Storm under 20s, getting the call up to play for the Sunshine Coast in their 2016 semi-final victory over the Blackhawks.

He pulled on the jersey again the following week for the Falcons’ preliminary final loss to the Redcliffe Dolphins and finished the year with two Cup games next to his name.

In 2017, he made his way into the team twice once again and in 2018 earned 11 Cup appearances. For the former hooker, it didn’t feel like promising signs.

Sam Burns. Photo: Rikki-Lee Arnold/QRL
Sam Burns. Photo: Rikki-Lee Arnold/QRL

“It’s really special to me this milestone just because probably at the beginning of my career, I didn’t think I’d get past 50 games, let alone 100,” Burns said.

“Early in my career, I only played a handful of games over the course of three years but I kept being dedicated and committed and got over that hump.

“I’m a lock now but I played under 20s with the Storm and the Falcons and was always a hooker so it was based off selection… I was still playing really good footy for local league and putting my best foot forward at training but with the experience and ability at the club, opportunity was limited.

“I couldn’t break through with guys like Harry Grant and Brandon Smith coming back from Melbourne, plus with a couple of guys we already had.

“So, I considered a position switch to try to broaden my scope of ability to become a lock and make myself a bit more versatile and be more valuable.

“I turned into bit more of a utility and hit the gym a lot, chucked on more size, and started practising as a ruck in the middle.

“It was definitely something I worked with the coaches on… they came to me about it. It was out of necessity.

“It was more of a coaching decision than a personal decision. But I just knew I wanted to get into the side somehow.”

There is plenty that young players coming through the ranks can take from Burns’ story.

Instead of giving in, he reinvented himself slightly and found a new role to play for his team. Now, eight years on, he reaches his special milestone.

A young Burns in action.
A young Burns in action.

Burns said he hoped his story could inspire some others along the way.

“The lesson would just be to use the disappointment or hardship that comes with not making a side and motivating you to problem solve and find a way to prove yourself,” Burns said.

“That would be the main lesson. Sticking to being resilient.

“I never dropped my head and always believed I was meant to be in the side. I was always really confident so I needed to be resilient and stick to it.

“I really love the game as well so loving the game helped me through that period, when I wasn’t making the sides. I still loved it no matter what and was willing to do the hard yards.”

Burns still is the kind of player who can always be relied on to do the hard work.

He often gets through a mountain of work in his Cup matches and is currently sitting on 94.6 per cent tackle efficiency for the year so far.

He is also part of the Cup team’s leadership group and has been captaining the club in the absence of usual skipper Patrice Siolo, who returns this week from an ACL injury.

For coach Brad Henderson, Burns represents everything the club is about.

“He’s the face of the Falcons,” Henderson said.

“He really embodies the way I think the team plays. He’s highly-skilled and an incredibly tough footballer. He’s completely genuine and gets on with everyone in the group.

“It’s hard to narrow down what he brings because he covers so many areas so well. I’m just proud to have had my turn at coaching him and I hope we get a win for him this weekend.”

Burns himself said he had built a bit of who he was today off of his former teammates.

Naturally he lists a number of Storm affiliate players as those who have left an impact on him, including Harry Grant, Nicho Hynes, Tino Fa'asuamaleaui, Ryley Jacks and more.

But there are two former Sunshine Coast players in particular that stand out for Burns as he continues to develop not only as a player but as a leader.

“Todd Murphy and Dane Hogan have been the biggest influences from a leadership perspective,” Burns said.

“They were really high level with how they approached their training and games and how invested they were… this isn’t just physically but it’s also the emotional and intellectual side of the game.

“Their footy IQ is really, really high and I developed my game from Todd Murphy with the high IQ and I try to copy Hoges quite a lot with the leadership skills.

“Hoges would never ask something of someone without putting it on himself to do that same thing. He wouldn’t ask someone to do something he wouldn’t do himself.

“He led by his actions and they were high impact on and off the field. It transcended throughout the whole entire squad and set a really good standard.

“Todd Murphy, he was really direct with how he communicated with people. Keeping it simple and being direct with what he wanted and what the team needs.”

For Burns, there has been a lot to reflect on this week as he approaches his milestone.

He clearly remembers his debut, in which the coach at the time Craig 'Trigger' Ingebrigtsen tricked him into thinking he was just playing 20 minutes when really he was playing the full 80 – a move that Burns is still grateful for today.

“I liked that he did it that way because I would have been overwhelmed,” Burns laughed.

“It was honestly the toughest game I’ve ever played, still to this day. A semi-final up in Townsville. They were a really, really tough, gritty team and had a lot of class.

“To get the win was pretty epic as well. I was very, very sore and tired after the game and I got emotional because it was my debut and we won and I was buggered.”

His highlights include the 2019 season, in which the Falcons – under the direction of now Northern Pride coach Eric Smith – went undefeated for 13 weeks straight and finished the regular season as minor premiers with 19 wins, two draws and two losses.

This was also Burns’ breakout year into Cup.

He said his biggest career challenge has been juggling football with his life away from the field, including work, study and his family.

Burns is the proud husband to Ashleigh and father of a daughter, Arli, and a five-week-old son, Oaklyn.

But – while Ashleigh is trying to get him to at least think of when he might retire – he still has a lot of football in front of him, even as he ticks off this 100-game milestone.

While Burns has plenty to celebrate in his career, there is still one major goal that eludes him – a Cup premiership.

It’s been over a decade since the Falcons won the title but while Burns has been at the club, they’ve come close time and time again. He is determined to get to grand final day at least once before he hangs up the boots.

“I’d like to win a premiership, definitely,” Burns said.

“It would be absolutely huge. My wife’s been putting a bit of pressure on to think about when I want to retire.

“One hundred games is a huge milestone individually but to win a premiership, I would be pretty content with my career from a Cup perspective. Even just making a grand final would be pretty epic.

“I’ve lost three or four prelims in my career. I’ve made the finals every year. I want to make it to a grand final.

“The competition is really open to a lot of teams to win it this year… we have as good a chance as anybody. We’ve by far had the best depth in our squad for as long as I can remember.

“I think our squad’s really well-rounded and our ceiling is really, really high. We just have to be more consistent. We have to peak at the good time of year and have luck on our side.”

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Queensland Rugby League respects and honours the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.

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