Burger is next best No 8

Duane Vermeulen’s injury should force Heyneke Meyer to give Schalk Burger an extended run at No 8 over the next five games, writes JON CARDINELLI.

There’s no replacing Duane Vermeulen. At least, that's the impression I got when I interviewed Heyneke Meyer on the subject last September.

Even a year out from the 2015 World Cup, the Bok coach was a worried man. He extolled the virtues of Vermeulen at the collisions, breakdowns and lineouts. He spoke of Vermeulen as a strong leader, as well as a candidate for the Bok captaincy.

Meyer’s only concern was that Vermeulen played too much rugby over the course of a season. He was worried that such a demanding workload would lead to an injury that compromised Vermeulen’s, and possibly the Boks’, World Cup ambitions.

At this stage, there's no evidence to suggest Vermeulen’s current neck injury is the result of too much Vodacom Super Rugby. Nevertheless, it's been confirmed that Vermeulen will be sidelined for the next 10 weeks, and that Meyer’s worst fears may be realised. The Boks may need to field a second-choice No 8 at the global tournament this September.

Meyer needs to move quickly to install an alternative. The best way forward is to back a player who was always likely to be Vermeulen's understudy at the World Cup.

Through a series of strong performances for the Boks in 2014, Schalk Burger has strengthened his claim for World Cup selection. Meyer has preferred Francois Louw, Willem Alberts and Vermeulen as his starting back row over the past three seasons, but will need a player who can cover all three of those positions in his World Cup squad. Burger certainly fits that description.

Earlier this year, when I interviewed the player for SA Rugby magazine, I asked him whether he would be keen on a move to No 8. His response was to talk up Vermeulen as one of the two outstanding No 8s in world rugby (the other being the All Blacks’ Kieran Read). And yet, once he had paid his respects, Burger said yes, he would enjoy the challenge, and that at this stage of his career he was willing to play the role of a utility loose forward.

Apart from Vermeulen, Warren Whiteley is the only other specialist No 8 in Meyer’s extended squad. And yet, Vermeulen and Whiteley differ a great deal. Whiteley is not as physical a player. He is also yet to prove he can offer something in the two other loose forward positions at Test level.

Burger may not be a specialist No 8 at his franchise, but does possess a similar skill-set to Vermeulen at the collisions and breakdowns. It’s for this reason that he may be a more attractive option at No 8 for Meyer in the coming weeks.

Both Burger and Whiteley need game time at No 8 over the next five matches, and Vermeulen’s injury-enforced absence will provide them with that opportunity. However, in the context of the coming World Cup, the Boks would benefit far more by backing Burger to start in the position.

Photo: Dave Rogers/Getty Images

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Jon Cardinelli