• Burger relishing greatest rivalry

    Schalk Burger is grateful for another chance to battle against the Springboks’ most revered of foes, the All Blacks, reports JON CARDINELLI in Johannesburg.

    On Tuesday at the Boks’ team hotel, there was a powerful moment when every media man and woman stopped taking notes to focus on Schalk Burger and absorb his every word. Burger put aside the platitudes to tell a story, to paint a picture of what this great sport of rugby and even greater rivalry between South Africa and New Zealand means to him as a player.

    Burger took his audience back to 1998, more specifically to the day the Boks beat the All Blacks in Wellington. He spoke about what that Bok performance did to inspire him, and what the contest itself did to fuel a lifelong dream to battle the men in black. It’s clear that after all these years, and even after all he’s endured off the playing field, the dream of a Cape Town schoolboy lives on.

    ‘That’s all you want as a youngster growing up in South Africa, to play against the All Blacks,’ he said, not even trying to temper his excitement. ‘You watch the haka, and it’s a challenge. You want to be part of it, you want to meet that challenge as a South African.

    ‘I’ve been privileged enough to get a few wins against the All Blacks during my career, but let’s be honest, it’s a tough assignment. We have a lot of respect for one another, but we know it’s going to be a challenge every time we meet. That doesn’t change. The more things change, the more things stay the same.’

    In September 2013, Burger made a miraculous return to the rugby field in a Currie Cup match between Western Province and Free State. It marked an end to a frightening chapter of his life, as he had not only spent the previous 18 months battling various leg injuries, but a life-threatening illness as well.

    As the months passed, it was clear that Burger still possessed that superstar quality. He starred for the Barbarians in their big win over Fiji at Twickenham in December, and then made another big statement with a titanic performance against the Crusaders in Christchurch. It was a showing that was hailed as significant, and not only by the South African fraternity, but the rugby-savvy New Zealand community as well.

    What followed was a recall to the Bok side for the June Tests. And now after a stint in Japan, Burger is back with the Boks and playing against the best Test teams in the world. He came off the bench in last week’s match against the Wallabies, and changed the game with his powerful ball-carrying and defending.

    This coming Saturday, Burger is expected to start against the No 1 side on the planet. It will mark his first game against the All Blacks since 2010. To date, he has played New Zealand on 13 occasions, and finished on the winning side four times.

    This weekend at Ellis Park, Burger will realise his dream to have another shot at the All Blacks. Burger is adamant that it is not enough just to compete. He wants to mark his return to rugby’s greatest rivalry with a Bok win.

    ‘I’m really looking forward to it. Every Test match you want a victory, but there’s something extra whenever you play the All Blacks,’ he said. ’There’s a lot of history there, and we as players are fortunate to be part of it.

    ‘The Boks, Australia and England have all been trying to catch them over the past few years, but they’ve been dominant. It’s been a continuous effort from us to try and catch up and surpass them, but they’ve been making it bloody tough for us, they keep on running, they’re like the pacemaker you can’t catch.

    ‘It’s a wonderful opportunity. They’re a great side, but so are we. Hopefully we can finish on the right side of the result this Saturday.’

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    Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images

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    Jon Cardinelli