Schalk Burger will be remembered as one of the toughest players to wear the Springbok jersey, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Burger will leave European club giants Saracens at the end of the northern-hemisphere season. The 36-year-old flank will return home to Cape Town, although it remains to be seen whether his playing days are well and truly over.
It’s worth reflecting on what he has achieved over the course of his storied career. Burger has been the ultimate warrior on and off the field, overcoming seemingly insurmountable challenges to compete at the highest level for the better part of 16 years.
Burger could have hung up his boots in 2006 after breaking his neck in a Test against Scotland. He could have retired in 2013 after surviving an illness that saw him at death’s door. Incredibly, he made a full recovery on both occasions.
Fast forward to the present, where he has been representing the northern hemisphere’s best club side of the past five years. He now has the chance to bow out of the game on his own terms.
Few who witnessed his story unfold in 2006 would have predicted such an outcome. Then-coach Jake White said that the flank’s career was in jeopardy and that losing a man of Burger’s ability and attitude would be the equivalent of losing three regular players.
Like most young journalists who were on ‘Burger watch’ that year, I called up a neck specialist for an informed opinion on the injury. The specialist was adamant that Burger’s playing days were over.
And yet, six months later I sat down with Burger to chat about his comeback to professional rugby. A few weeks on, fans around the country had held their breath when Burger, playing in his comeback game for the Stormers, threw himself into a tackle with reckless abandon. Burger went on to help the Boks win the World Cup later that year.
In 2012, Burger tore knee ligaments in the first match of the season. He was subsequently informed by his doctors that he had contracted life-threatening bacterial meningitis.
Close family and friends were called to say their goodbyes as Burger battled for every breath in his hospital bed. He won one battle, then another, and eventually clawed his way back from the brink.
It felt like the whole of the South African rugby community was watching when Burger played in his comeback match for Western Province in Bloemfontein on 27 September 2013. Bok captain Jean de Villiers, who was with the national side in Cape Town at the time, confirmed that he and the players intended to watch their former talisman’s return on TV. It felt like the Rugby Championship Test between South Africa and Australia was a secondary event that week.
Again, there were questions about his form and whether he still possessed the means to dominate as he had before. Burger featured prominently in the landmark victory against the All Blacks at Ellis Park in 2014, and was entrusted with the Bok captaincy during the early stages of the 2015 Test season. He was one of the standout performers at the 2015 World Cup in England, his fourth global tournament since 2003.
Burger left his beloved Cape Town in 2016 having never won a major trophy with the Stormers or WP. He found some success with Saracens, when the English club won the European Champions Cup in 2017 and the Premiership a year later.
At the time of writing, Saracens were still in the hunt for both titles and Burger was set for a fairytale ending to his career. [Burger came off the bench to help Saracens win the Champions Cup final, but did not feature in the club’s recent triumph against Exeter in the Premiership decider].
Burger was a gifted Test athlete and didn’t receive enough credit for his astute rugby brain. What will set his story apart in the years to come, however, is his attitude towards adversity.
The ultimate warrior is reaching the end of his reign, but one gets the feeling that his feats on and off the field will echo into eternity.
This column first appeared in the June edition of SA Rugby magazine