Schalk Burger’s colossal performance against England was as much a lesson to South African supporters as it was the completion of an incredible rugby comeback, writes MARK KEOHANE in Business Day.
Burger 18 months ago was fighting for his life and too many were willing to confine his rugby exploits to the past.
Not so Burger – or his close teammates. They know the character. So do the best among the opposition.
Burger’s initial return was low-key, off the bench for Western Province. Then a festival match at Twickenham as the Barbarians hammered Fiji.
Burger was all smiles a year ago at Twickenham and all razzle and dazzle. It was a ferocious Burger who returned to Twickenham to destroy any Englishman’s pretence, as would-be enforcers.
Burger, based in Japan during the Currie Cup season, has been patient in his international return. He played off the bench against Australia at Newlands, against New Zealand at Ellis Park and against Ireland at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin.
Each time his impact was huge. Given his first start on tour against England, the contribution was massive.
Burger played with the mongrel that has characterised his Test career and he reminded every supporter of the difference between a grizzly Test veteran and a rookie Super Rugby player.
A year ago many were dismissive about Burger’s possible return. The same sentiments were echoed when the whispers started about Victor Matfield’s resumption of a playing career.
Many were as vocal in telling Bakkies Botha to enjoy the pleasures of the south of France. The Boks had a new enforcer in Eben Etzebeth and apparently didn’t need an old hand like Botha.
I’ve written often (and am not alone in this view) that there has to be an appreciation of how many world-class players are needed in every position for a Bok squad to win four out of five and for there to be conviction in any belief of winning the 2015 World Cup.
Out of sight should never be out of mind.
Fourie du Preez was another who was told to enjoy his pension in Japan. That was until he played one Test a year ago.
South African rugby supporters can never be accused of lacking in conviction and in passion. But unfortunately too many can be accused of ignorance and for having as much a disregard for the challenge of tomorrow as they have for the heroics of yesterday.
Botha was the tonic that guided the Boks to victory against France in Paris when injury ended Etzebeth’s Test after 17 minutes.
Matfield has been unrivalled among South African locks as another of the promising brigade, Pieter-Steph du Toit, recovers from injury. And Burger has been terrific since injury curtailed Willem Alberts’ season.
There should not be a need to lose one to gain another. Two per position is what makes a good team potentially great.
The Boks are close to this in nearly every position and the reminder of who wasn’t at Twickenham is as important as the applause for those who legally beat England into submission.
Jaque Fourie and Du Preez will add a dimension to the Bok attack, be it starting or in an impact capacity. Francois Louw and Willem Alberts were just a few months ago being heralded as the best loose-forward complement to No 8 Duane Vermeulen.
Marcell Coetzee was an afterthought and talk of Burger was ridiculed. Social media is a cruel forum, but it also shows how much ignorance exists.
For many supporters, out of sight is out of mind.
A week ago, the social media forums wanted all the oldies out of the Bok team. In the past 48 hours, the oldies have been hailed as the saviours.
Rugby intelligence isn’t just something we should be asking of the Springboks.
Burger and the Boks were too brutal for an England side that has regressed. I had England to win by two to three points and based this on home-ground advantage and absolute desperation.
But I didn’t realise the absolute limitations of the England attack, especially when there is no go-forward ball and no attacking momentum.
To watch a team play on TV masks much of the off-the-ball vulnerability. Once South Africa’s defence smothered and smashed England’s attackers in the collisions, there was only going to be one winner.
Don’t be fooled by the statistics that show possession to have favoured England. It’s the quality of the ball that's significant, and the Boks were ruthless in disrupting England’s ball.
The Boks were comfortable winners, as were New Zealand against England a week ago. The respective three-point differentials only adds to the delusion England is currently a world force. They aren’t.
There isn’t much that separates New Zealand and South Africa but there’s plenty from three downwards.
Dublin, a week ago, proved an aberration for the Boks, whose players in the week preceding England spoke of complacency and a lack of intent.
There was no such mental frailty at Twickenham, but the challenge for the Boks is to back up the intensity every weekend rather than one in three.
And the challenge for those of us in the rugby media and those of you in the social media is to appreciate that 15 very good players won’t win South Africa the World Cup, but 30 very good ones just may do the job.
It’s not about Burger or Alberts, or Coetzee or Louw, or Etzebeth or Botha, or Serfontein or Fourie… or Pat Lambie or Handré Pollard.
The thinking needs to be in the plural and not the singular, just like so many of those tackles were at Twickenham.
Photo: Steve Haag/Gallo Images