Schalk Burger was monumental for the Stormers against the Brumbies, writes MARK KEOHANE in Business Day newspaper.
Experience, especially those players with a winning habit, a sense of occasion and a World Cup winner's medal, gives a team the edge at the World Cup.
Jake White was mocked when he lured Os du Randt out of retirement in 2004. The big guy’s knees were gone, he was out of shape, carrying the weight of a darts player and not a 1995 World Cup winner, and the general consensus was for White to get with the programme, leave the dinosaurs alone and invest in youth.
White had invested in youth. Half the starting lineup that won the U21 World Cup (with White as coach) were in White’s first Test squad to play Ireland in 2004. But White respected the unforgiving nature of Test rugby and he also realised that youth inspires energy but youth also needs guidance and mentoring.
The Bok coach wanted Du Randt there for his experience, for his presence and, all going well, for his rugby. He managed the player’s workload in training, treated him as a special project and always believed the decision would be decisive in the Springboks’ hopes of World Cup glory.
White was correct. The younger players got comfort. They asked questions about how it felt to win a World Cup. They had something tangible among them – a player who was revered in world rugby, the best in his position and a World Cup winner.
It's why SA Rugby magazine, in picking the best 20 Springboks since 1995, nominated Du Randt as No 1.
Du Randt was colossal for the Boks between 2004 and 2007. He was especially brutal in everything he did defensively at the successful 2007 World Cup, and he inspired the younger brigade to have conviction and not just hope. White would often talk of the Os influence. He’d say to me he calmed the new caps, simply by being in the change room.
‘They’d look into the one corner and there sat a World Cup winner, a player respected and feared by opposition and a player who held not fears of the contest. It gave them the belief in how good they good be; in how revered the best Springboks have been in world rugby,’ White told me in discussing Du Randt for SA Rugby magazine's 20 best Boks, of which he and I were among the selectors.
Queue Schalk Burger. He’s a winner. He’s an inspiration. He’s a World Cup winner. He is a champion. He was and is among the best loose forwards to have played the game. He commands presence and he commands respect; from within his change room and most definitely among the opposition.
Burger, Richie McCaw and George Smith – they are the standard the very best of the current international loose forwards aspire.
Burger, at the weekend, was monumental for the Stormers against the Brumbies. The hair may be thinning from the blonde mop that terrorised the Irish in 2004, but the mongrel, control and impact is as menacing and bruising. His work-rate is that of two players and his skills are the equal of the most talented ball-players.
His comeback from a life-threatening illness won him the Laureus Comeback of the Year. In the world of sport, Burger’s story was deemed to have been the most inspiring and the most successful. But the comeback is yesterday’s news because Burger’s form is what's making today’s news.
If it’s a choice between Burger and the very best of the younger generation, Heyneke Meyer will pick Burger. Any international coach would pick Burger.
Meyer spoke last week of the brilliance of South Africa’s loose-forward player base, locally and abroad. He said South Africa had 20 world-class loose forwards, who were all good enough to play Test rugby. He said that in a squad of 31 the norm would be to pick five. His challenge would be to work seven into the squad, with a few of them doubling as utility forwards.
Willem Alberts is just one who, if needed, could play lock. Francois Louw, is the preferred openside specialist. The only other player in his class is Heinrich Brüssow, but Meyer has not been a disciple of Brüssow in the last three years.
Meyer favours big ball-carrying loose forwards and initially felt Burger was more a creative No 8 than blindside option. That opinion would have changed. He can carry and he can create.
2014 SA Player of the Year Duane Vermeulen (as a No 8), Burger and Louw have to be the first three loose forwards assured of World Cup selection, and if it comes down to Burger, Nizaam Carr, Siya Kolisi or Warren Whitely, it should not even be a discussion.
Carr, Kolisi and Whitely are all tremendously talented and all have potential for longevity as Springboks, but they are pups to international rugby, whereas Burger is an old and feared dog.
Carr and Whitely are among the best in the country, but Burger is among the best in the world.
The Stormers won against the Brumbies, but the biggest victory belonged to Burger.
Photo: Carl Fourie/Gallo Images