Schalk Burger's elevation to the Springbok side will depend on a sustained performance in Vodacom Super Rugby, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Victor Matfield and Schalk Burger have a lot in common. They're both Springbok legends, easily the best lock and flanker to come out of South Africa in the modern era. They've both won individual awards, big tournaments, and of course the 2007 World Cup. They've both also been out of the Bok set-up since November 2011.
That, however, is where the similarities end. Matfield made his Super Rugby comeback last Saturday, and Burger is set to make his return for the Stormers this weekend. But each man has travelled a different road to get to this point, and each will continue to tread different paths toward Test selection in the coming months.
The Boks need Matfield to come back. The 2013 Test season witnessed an improvement in terms of results and performance, but it also highlighted the need for a specialist No 5. Matfield's lineout management skills and knowledge are second to none, and providing he regains his former fitness, he should feature prominently for the Boks in June.
Burger could also add terrific value to the Boks, but at this point, there is no guarantee he will start in the back row.
He made a gradual return to rugby in the 2013 Currie Cup, and then delivered an emphatic performance for the Barbarians against Fiji at Twickenham. That showing suggested he may still have what it takes, although a definitive statement regarding his physicality can only be made after he has completed and won more battles.
Last November, Heyneke Meyer decided not to select Burger for the Boks' three-Test tour to Europe. It was not so much a snub as a statement that Burger was not yet physically ready for the demands of Test rugby.
The real question is whether Burger can recapture his form after all he's been through, and produce the goods on a weekly basis
The game at Twickenham challenged the perception. A string of physically dominant performances in Super Rugby should convince Meyer that Burger is still the same force he was prior to his struggles with injury and illness.
The Bok coach believes that players aspiring to Test selection must prove themselves in Super Rugby rather than in the Currie Cup. Players like Matfield and Burger are hardly aspiring Test players, having racked up 110 and 68 Test caps respectively, but they have been out of action for a long time and will want to use this platform to relaunch their Test careers.
The difference between the two is that Matfield opted to quit rugby, he was never forced. He realised his mistake too late, and was denied a comeback in early 2012.
In his absence, the Boks have failed to develop another leader at the lineout. And so it follows that if Matfield stays fit and dominates the discipline in the coming months, he will ascend to the position of chief set-piece strategist at the Boks.
Burger, however, has more to prove. In a recent interview with SARugbymag.co.za, he admitted that it would take time getting used to the pace and physicality of the game. There is no doubt about what a fully fit Burger can achieve on the playing field, and how that can lift a Bok side's collective performance. The real question here is whether Burger can recapture that form after all he's been through, and produce the goods on a weekly basis.
We saw a glimpse of his trademark physicality and underrated ball skills in that Barbarians fixture last year. If Burger wants to challenge the status quo in 2014, he will need to deliver more of that defining belligerence, and over a longer period of time.
As always, the management of a top player like Burger in Super Rugby is going to be crucial. The Stormers boast an all-Bok back row in Siya Kolisi, Burger and Duane Vermeulen, and if that combination delivers as expected, it will give Meyer more to think about in a Test context.
South Africa isn't spoiled for choice at blindside flank. Arno Botha was recently ruled out for six months with a serious injury, and it seems likely that Willem Alberts and Burger will head into the June Test series as the two No 7 options.
There's a good chance that both men will enjoy plenty of game time for the Boks this season, given the demands of South Africa's schedule as well as the attrition rate and potential for injury that is the blindside's lot. But Burger has never settled for second-best, and will want to remind Meyer and the rest of South Africa why he was at one stage considered the finest flanker on the planet.
This Saturday may mark the beginning of his comeback proper, but it won't mark the end.
Photo: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images