Schalk Burger is enjoying Saracens’ South African-influenced culture, writes MARTIN GILLINGHAM.
In the 14 years Schalk Burger spent playing rugby with Newlands as his home, he achieved just about all there was to achieve – Tri-Nations titles, a World Cup victory, a series victory against the British & Irish Lions, even recognition from the world’s governing body that in 2004 he was the finest player on the planet. Yet, until a breezy May day in Edinburgh this year, he’d never won a thing in a jersey that wasn’t green and gold.
‘In 14 seasons I never won a Super Rugby final with the Stormers, or the Currie Cup with Western Province. Jean de Villiers and myself were both injured when WP won the Currie Cup [in 2012],’ Burger says.
At 34, the legs don’t turn over quite as swiftly as they once did, while the passing of time has seen the shock of blond locks give way to a sharper trim. Yet beneath the jersey – these days one of black or red – beats a heart that is every bit as committed to the cause as it was during his formative years in the maroon, gold and green of Paarl Gym.
Saracens’ European Champions Cup final win, at the expense of perennial bridesmaids Clermont Auvergne, filled the gap on the Burger CV.
‘It is right up there,’ he says. ‘I came close to winning a few trophies in South Africa, so I guess if you play long enough it happens for you. These are the days you play rugby for.’
Despite being one of Saracens’ busiest players this season, Burger wasn’t picked to start the final. He was relegated to the bench by the outstanding form of Jackson Wray, which, despite being good enough to relegate a Bok legend, has yet to turn the head of Eddie Jones.
Wray was the first Saracen to be replaced at Murrayfield. And with the outcome still hanging in the balance, Burger put in a Test-class 20-minute shift to get his team across the finish line. No ego, no grumbles about his secondary playing status, Burger’s purpose at Saracens is clearly defined.
‘I’ve got a leadership role but it’s quiet, unassuming,’ he says. ‘I’m just doing my bit; my leadership comes through in the way I play and how I communicate on the field.’
Wray is the first to acknowledge Burger’s influence.
‘I’ve been taking a lot from what he does – his feel for the game, his positioning and the way he gets around the field – and it’s brilliant to run off him,’ he says. ‘I’m feeding off what he does and the decisions he makes are first-class. I’m trying to put as much of that into my game and make a real impact.’
Burger’s way is very much the Saracens’ way: a unique environment in European club rugby that has been carved out by South Africans.
Back in October 2010, a dozen captains representing English, Welsh and Scottish teams were invited to attend the official launch event of that season’s European Cup. ‘Invited’ is a euphemistic reference; the captains’ appearances were, in fact, contractual commitments. Eleven of the 12 turned up. The Saracens didn’t. Steve Borthwick and his teammates had chosen not to attend the press event that served to promote the Cup’s sponsor, a well-known brand of beer. Instead, they went off to Bavaria for a drink themselves. Saracens’ trip to Munich’s Oktoberfest was a snub that sparked outrage.
Back then, Saracens were English rugby’s self-styled awkward squad. The club’s new image was a reflection of the personalities of their Rain Man-style director of rugby Brendan Venter and their brilliant yet recalcitrant chief executive Edward Griffiths. It was a period that saw Saracens make few friends beyond their tight-knit squad and smallish band of committed fans. But what mattered most to Venter and Griffiths was that they were re-laying the foundations of a club that had got stuck in reverse gear.
In April, more than six years on and by then reigning English and European champions, Saracens celebrated their Champions Cup semi-final victory against Munster with a similarly social away-day.
It was almost two days, in fact, and this time it was to Barcelona. Yet, far from being the act of a maverick outfit, their 36 hours in the Catalan sunshine spent without touching a rugby ball was acclaimed as a stroke of genius, rugby’s blueprint for success.
‘Saracens’ culture is similar to the Stormers’ – how we treat each other off the field; the family environment; how we get everyone to buy into one plan,’ says Burger. ‘And that just breeds respect.’
One of the old friends from his Western Province and Stormers days who Burger has been able to catch up with since his move to the green fields of Hertfordshire is scrumhalf Neil de Kock. He arrived at Saracens in 2006 and will be returning to the Cape in the coming weeks.
‘Sometimes certain parts of these trips go wrong,’ De Kock says. ‘But they were brought about in the beginning to create what we call “social capital” and to bond the guys.
‘It’s not all brilliant. We get things wrong, we have frustrations, we have difficult individuals. We have guys who don’t get on at times. It’s not a stag-do. Yes, we do have a couple of drinks on these trips, but we do make an effort to bond with guys we wouldn’t normally bond with outside work.’
All of which goes some way to explaining why Burger was such a prized catch when, after years of coaxing, he finally agreed to a two-season contract with Saracens.
‘They’d been chasing me hard, especially in the past couple of seasons in South Africa,’ he says. ‘Conveniently, we were in England for the World Cup and the training okes made a bit of effort and took me out for a couple of beers.’
‘A bit of effort’ is a classic Burger understatement, because at Saracens nothing is done with ‘a bit’ of anything. We can assume that’s just the way he likes it.
– This article first appeared in the June 2017 issue of SA Rugby magazine