Burger’s big impact

Schalk Burger still has a role to play for the Boks, as a starter or substitute, writes JON CARDINELLI.

In the buildup to the Test between the Springboks and All Blacks at Ellis Park, New Zealand assistant coach Ian Foster was asked to comment on South Africa’s progress over the past two seasons. It was interesting to listen to a member of a crack All Blacks coaching team wax lyrical about the Boks’ thriving attack as well as the expert management of their match-day 23. According to Foster, the Boks are now more dangerous than ever because they’ve found a way to sustain their attacking momentum over the course of a big contest.

The observation was made in the wake of the Boks’ resounding 28-10 win against the Wallabies in Cape Town. That final scoreline doesn’t tell the story of how the Wallabies won the first 50 minutes and how the Boks won the last 30. The game’s standout player featured for less than half an hour, yet his impact would be profound.

Schalk Burger didn’t score a try, but his 17 ball carries as well as the 144m he gained during that short period certainly stretched the Wallabies defence. Thanks to Burger and several others, the platform was laid for the Bok backline to attack. The hosts finished strongly to not only win the match by a comfortable margin, but clinch the four-try bonus point.

Burger has always added value to the Bok cause, and it’s been evident since his return to Test rugby in June that he still has what it takes to make a telling contribution at the highest level. He’s managed to prove this despite playing in only five Tests in the lead-up to the Boks’ end-of-year tour, due to club commitments in Japan. What’s been obvious is that he still has the desire and the ability to do the Bok jersey justice, and that his role with the side in future may be from the bench. 

In the past, this kind of statement would be taken as a slight. But if the performances in the last two matches of the 2014 Rugby Championship have proved anything, it’s that Burger’s versatility and experience can make all the difference in the latter stages of crunch games.

If all goes to plan, Francois Louw, Willem Alberts and Duane Vermeulen will travel to next year’s global tournament as the first-choice back row. From the bench, Burger will provide the Boks with cover in all three positions of openside flank, blindside flank and No 8. More importantly, he has the ability to lift the tempo and the intensity when he is introduced in the second half of a match.

Burger’s versatility and experience can make all the difference in the latter stages of crunch games

Even before his struggles with injury and illness, Burger had progressed to the point where his linking play was on a par with his trademark physicality. Who could forget the subtle touch of brilliance that culminated in a try for the Stormers against the Crusaders in Christchurch this past March? His seldom-celebrated passing strengths as well as his vision have been more evident in recent months, and there is also a feeling among the Bok management team that the stint in Japan may do him some good.

At the time of writing, Burger had played eight games for Suntory Sungoliath. He has played at openside and blindside during this period, but what’s interesting to note is that the South African icon has spent most of his Japanese sojourn at No 8.

Bok coach Heyneke Meyer is a fan of Burger, and has spoken of the value of his versatility on numerous occasions. Indeed, of the 25 minutes Burger played at Newlands, 17 were spent at No 8. Vermeulen was forced to leave the field with a serious injury during the second half, which prompted a reshuffle in the Bok pack. The positional switch clearly didn’t slow Burger down.

When he returned to the playing field in September 2013 after a battle with injuries as well as a life-threatening illness, it was felt the comeback was complete. Whatever happened after that would be considered a bonus. The Miracle Man was back.

But when this was put to Burger in a TV interview, the decorated loose forward begged to differ. He said his aim was to play again for the Boks, and to win another World Cup. He’s already achieved one of those goals, and if he falls short of the second, it won’t be for lack of effort or desire.

Burger will play a key role for the Boks at the 2015 World Cup. The nature of that role may depend on how many of the Boks’ first-choice loose forwards make it to the World Cup. What is certain is that Burger will form part of the 23-man assault. His inclusion, as a starter or as an impact player, will significantly increase the Boks’ chances of lifting that title on 31 October next year.

– This article first appeared in the December 2014 issue of SA Rugby magazine

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