Schalk Burger is determined to regain the form that earned him the South African Player of the Year award in 2011. JON CARDINELLI reports.
Burger is already one of South African rugby's most decorated players. He's been named South Africa's Player of the Year on two occasions (2004 and 2011), and was the IRB Player of the Year in 2004. He's helped the Springboks to monumental title wins in the Tri-Nations (2004 and 2009), and at the 2007 World Cup.
Burger has inspired fans around the world with his abrasive style of play. More recently, he has inspired with his fight and eventual victory against a life-threatening illness.
The South African icon beat the odds to recover from bacterial meningitis and return to the game in September 2013. He went on to make his Test comeback in June 2014, and was the Man of the Match in the Boks' big win against England last November.
Earlier this year, Laureus confirmed that Burger is in the running for its Comeback of the Year award. The winner of the award will be announced at a ceremony in Shanghai on 15 April, and there's good reason to believe Burger will walk away with the prize.
'It’s a great honour and pleasure to have somebody from South Africa in line for an award,' said former Springbok captain Morné du Plessis, who is also part of the Laureus World Sport Academy.
'I know his family well, and we were all very touched by the ordeal. I was phoning his dad every day, and every day the news wasn’t good. Then all of a sudden, Schalk was out of hospital. Then he was back on the playing field. I look at him now, and he’s in terrific shape. It’s a tremendous story. No guesses for whom I will be voting!'
Burger joined Japanese club Suntory Sungoliath at the conclusion of the Stormers' 2014 Super Rugby campaign. He recently returned to the Cape franchise, and was part of the squad that thumped the Sharks at Newlands last Saturday.
For so long, Burger's sole ambition was to play one final rugby game at a competitive level. Then after his Currie Cup comeback, he set himself the goal of returning to the Boks. And after ticking that box, he is striving to regain the form that marked him as one of the world's best players in 2011.
'If I think about where I was prior to that illness, I was 28 and at the peak of my powers,' Burger said. 'I had just been named the South African Player of the Year. Rugby dominated my whole life.
'That’s changed since I've come back. Rugby is still an important part of my life, but it’s a smaller part of my life.
'It’s difficult to explain, but that's changed everything. I get 200% enjoyment out of my rugby, and I’m not sure that would have been the case if I wasn't out for those two years. I had played a lot of rugby up to 2011, and while I was enjoying the game, I wasn’t enjoying everything around it.'
Once Burger had made a recovery from that illness and was allowed to return home, he began to think about a return to rugby.
'I remember the first time I walked over Table Mountain. I was a bit naughty, I wasn’t really supposed to be doing it at that stage. I was reprimanded by my wife afterwards,' he says with a laugh.
'Then it was about playing one more rugby match. They said the odds were against me, the doctor said that there may be a chance of playing again but perhaps not playing like Schalk Burger again.
'But you tend to see those things as a challenge, and be a bit stubborn. After making it back, my next goal was to play for the Boks. I remember that each time I braaied with mates, I told them that all I wanted was to play one more Test for the Boks. And then when it happened, I wanted to play more and more.'
Burger made his return for the Boks in the first Test against Wales on 14 June 2014. He made a big impact as a substitute in the Rugby Championship against Australia at Newlands, and was the standout player in South Africa's win against England at Twickenham in November.
If he remains fit, Burger will travel to the World Cup. Between now and the global tournament, which kicks off in September, he will aim to lift his game.
'To be honest, I’m not back to where I was in 2011. Every game is a challenge, but I feel that I’m slowly getting there. I’m getting close to where I was before, and more importantly, I’m enjoying my rugby.'
Photo: Carl Fourie/Gallo Images