Schalk Burger's future may be in Japan. JON CARDINELLI reports.
Burger recently admitted that he wouldn't mind playing for an overseas club, and it's no secret that European Cup winners Toulon want the Springbok flanker on their books.
However, it is understood that Japan is considered the more attractive and lucrative option, and that the hugely successful Suntory Sungoliath club has been working hard to secure Burger's signature.
The move to Japan would help offset the financial losses suffered through an extensive absence from the game. Burger sustained a serious knee injury in February 2012 and was ruled out for the rest of that season. A combination of injuries and illness in early 2013 then saw the star flanker missing the subsequent Super Rugby tournament, and only returning to the field during the Currie Cup.
It's possible that Burger will remain available to the Stormers, although the time of his return to Cape Town each season would depend on his club's progress in the Top League, Japan's domestic competition.
Peter Grant has divided his time between Super Rugby and the Top League for the past four seasons. The Kobelco Steelers have often needed Grant to compete in the Top League play-offs, which overlap with the start of the Super Rugby competition.
Needless to say, Burger would face the same challenges if he were to commit to both Suntory and the Stormers. His current contract with the Cape union expires at the end of 2014.
The other option is to go the route of Fourie du Preez, Jaque Fourie, and most recently Andries Bekker, who play exclusively for their respective Japanese clubs.
When asked to explain his reasons for moving to the less physically demanding Top League, Bekker said the move to Japan would extend his playing career by a couple of years.
Either way, a move to Japan would not jeopardise Burger's eligibility for national selection. Du Preez and Fourie, who both play club rugby in Japan, made their return to the Bok squad in 2013.
JP Pietersen is another Bok who has enjoyed a stint in Japan, as has Ryan Kankowski. Both of these players will feature for the Sharks in the coming Super Rugby tournament.
Bok coach Heyneke Meyer has made it clear that he will select players on merit. If a South African player is good enough, then his geographical location will not count against him.
Because relatively few games are played during the Top League competition, clubs are reluctant to release their overseas players for every Test match. This was made evident in the 2013 season, when Du Preez was limited to five Test appearances for the Boks, and Fourie to three.
Meyer will know what he has in Burger, a special player who has already starred in 69 Tests. A move to Japan would not mark an end to Burger's national ambitions, nor preclude him from Meyer's long-term plans.
If Burger were to head east to play club rugby later this year, his appearances for the Boks would be limited. However, the good news for Meyer is that all of the South African players based in Japan will be available for the duration of the 2015 World Cup tournament.
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