In the fourth instalment of a five-part series, SA Rugby magazine’s writers pick their best Springbok XV of the past 25 years.
JON CARDINELLI: Schalk Burger began his career as a brilliant openside flank who had the ability to win the race to the ruck and then secure the ball for his side. In 2004, there was no better fetcher in world rugby, not even Richie McCaw.
Burger developed his distribution skills over the next 11 years and ended up playing every position in the back row for the Boks. While he maintained his appetite for contact as well as his peerless work rate, he started to offer more to the side in that linking role.
The Boks have fielded a number of hard men in the No 7 position during the professional era – Andre Venter and Juan Smith among the very best of those. Pieter-Steph du Toit has proved a blend of grunt and guile, though – a one-of-a-kind athlete that can give his team an edge regardless of their approach. Du Toit was named World Rugby Player of the Year in 2019, and has won the SA Rugby Player of the Year award three times in the past four years.
Duane Vermeulen had to wait until the age of 26 to receive his first Test cap. Since then, he has been one of the Boks’ most consistent performers and – along with the All Blacks’ Kieran Read – one of the best No 8s on the planet. While he’s better known for his ability to dominate the gainline, Vermeulen has been one of the Boks’ premier players at the breakdown. He was a key player and leader for the Boks in a hugely successful 2019 season – which yielded the Rugby Championship and World Cup titles – and was named Man of the Match for his contributions in the World Cup final in Yokohama.
CRAIG LEWIS: A loose trio of Schalk Burger, Pieter-Steph du Toit and Duane Vermeulen is understandably popular among my colleagues, but after plenty of arguing with one of them in particular (@Wade Pretorius), I’m still willing to be the odd man out.
Having said that, I’m not a complete mad man and Burger certainly walks into my loose trio. A player who was simply peerless in his prime, and once even had coach Jake White quip that he would love to be able to pick 15 Schalk Burgers if he could.
At No 8, Pierre Spies and Bob Skinstad had their moments, and I’d even offer another shout-out to Gary Teichmann (yes, yes, maybe that’s my Durban-born bias coming through again), but ultimately Vermeulen is the only possible selection at No 8. His performance in the last year’s World Cup final alone was a thing of masterful beauty.
Yet, it’s at blindside flank where I’m going to court controversy by opting against picking Pieter-Steph du Toit, even though I’ve begun to lose count of how many SA Rugby Player of the Year accolades he has won recently.
Instead, I’m going with one of the unsung heroes of the 2007 World Cup triumph and 2009 British & Irish Lions success, Juan Smith. His gutsy fightback from a career-threatening achilles injury tells you all you need to know about the guts and gumption of this loose-forward powerhouse who was the type of player anyone would want to go into battle with.
WADE PRETORIUS: My ultimate Bok back row would consist of Schalk Burger, Pieter-Steph du Toit and Duane Vermeulen. Since rugby moved into the pro era, South Africa has always been stocked with the best. To credit my three chosen as the best means to leave out the likes of Juan Smith, Andre Venter, Bobby Skinstad, Francois Louw, Willem Alberts, Danie Rossouw, Heinrich Brussow and Siya Kolisi. Here I’ve probably left a few out, too. But the point is, the trio of Burger, Du Toit and Vermeulen tick all the boxes – all are World Cup winners, all have already had established Springbok careers and all can lay claim to being the best player in the team in a given season.
Both Burger and Vermeulen cover all three positions – both are leaders, ball-carriers, workhorses, defensive warriors and feared for their physicality – while Du Toit, a one of a kind superstar, has gone on to prove he is worth the hype with a standout 2019 and would walk into any World XV chosen over the past two years.
MARIETTE ADAMS: As much as it pains me to leave out Juan Smith, a loose trio made up of Schalk Burger, Pieter-Steph du Toit and Duane Vermeulen are just too enticing to ignore.
Let’s start with ‘The Incredible Schalk’. As alluded to by colleague Cardinelli, in 2004 Burger was prime Burger and his performances that year had him being crowned World Rugby Player of the Year. Burger had it all as a player and gave all he had to the Bok jersey.
Just the other day I watched highlights of old Bok games and was again reminded of what an exceptional player Burger was. Throughout his illustrious career, Burger played every minute as it if was his last and he did so with total disregard for his own body. Gary Gold has once boldly stated that Burger is the greatest modern-day player of all time. Who am I to disagree with Gold?
As mentioned, it was a tight call between Du Toit and Smith for me. But the current World Rugby Player of the Year just about edges out Smith. Even when Springbok rugby went through its darkest days (read 2016-17), Du Toit emerged as the only shining light. I’m struggling to recall when last he played a bad game. I reckon he is the only player on the planet who can pretty much walk his way into any Test team in the world right now.
Vermeulen actually picks himself at No 8. I actually dread the day he will no longer be available for Springbok selection, because no other eighthman in this country touches him in terms of quality. Vermeulen is not a flashy player (although he is the one who blessed us with that offload to Fourie du Preez in 2015), but his brutal physicality is unmatched and that sets him apart from the rest.
DYLAN JACK: Loose forward is undoubtedly the toughest position when it comes to selecting the best of the Boks in the professional era. From Francois Pienaar to Andre Venter to Danie Rossouw, Heinrich Brussouw and Duane Vermeulen, South Africa has never been short of flanks. As anyone who has watched any of the overseas leagues can attest to, it is also one of the country’s top exports.
However, to the task at hand and I might have to cheat slightly with this one. My best Bok loose trio would consist of Schalk Burger, Juan Smith and Pieter-Steph du Toit, with the first of the three taking up a place at No 8, where he played in the latter stages of his Test career.
All three have shown the character and immense mental strength to overcome hardships in their career. Burger’s fightback from the brink of death is well known, while Smith resurrected his career after it seemed it had been ended by a ligament injury.
Du Toit, meanwhile, could easily have fallen to the wayside after suffering all manner of injuries during his time in Durban with the Sharks. However, he has bounced back and pretty much won it all. He would walk into any team on top form.