Statement of intent

Schalk Burger’s performance against the Crusaders in Christchurch showed he still has a role to play for the Springboks, writes JON CARDINELLI.

At long last, South Africa has a new Schalk Burger story. Some would argue that a return to the playing field in 2013 was climax enough after the iconic flanker’s brush with mortality, but there are more chapters to be written about this great South African rugby protagonist, and possibly a more powerful ending to punctuate a career less ordinary.

Burger has already won every award on offer, as an individual and as part of the title-winning Springbok sides of 2004, 2007 and 2009. That said, one cannot ignore all that has happened over the past two years, and it’s fair to say he should not be guaranteed national selection based on his previous contributions. Indeed, the past few months have been all about Schalk Burger proving he’s still Schalk Burger and not a player who has been partially hobbled by two career-threatening injuries and a debilitating illness.

Burger lasted just 33 minutes in the Stormers’ opening match against the Lions, pulling up with a groin injury that would also preclude him from the Cape side’s next clash against the Hurricanes.

The pessimists were adamant history would repeat itself, and that after being struck down by injury in the first game of 2012 and then again during the 2013 pre-season, it was to be expected that Burger’s 2014 Super Rugby tournament would end before it had even begun. That was until the Stormers travelled to Christchurch in round four, and he not only returned to the starting line-up but struck a blow to all who had dared to suggest he was a spent force.

The Stormers were ultimately beaten by the Crusaders, but there was still much to celebrate for the South African rugby supporter. Burger made a statement with his performance at the collisions and breakdowns, exuding the same abrasive attitude that commanded such universal respect before his injury-enforced absence in 2012 and 2013. He made 16 tackles in that match, although the stats don’t do his display justice, as he flew into the contact point and often stopped the momentum of his opponent. This was Burger as the world once knew him. This was Burger back to his best.

Burger made a statement with his performance at the collisions and breakdowns, exuding the same abrasive attitude that commanded such universal respect before his injury-enforced absence in 2012 and 2013

While that physicality has defined him over the course of his career, opposition coaches and players will confirm there’s far more to him than meets the eye. Before his injury troubles in 2012, Burger had developed his attacking play to the point where he could offload in  contact, or alternatively send a long pass to the outside. Back in 2004, his brief was to destroy whatever lay in his path. Later in his career, he was encouraged to see the big picture, to use his brute force to an intelligent end.

This quality was certainly evident on that momentous night in Christchurch. Early in the second half, Burger tracked back to his own 22 to field a poor kick by the Crusaders, and then proceeded to launch a counter-attack.

He ran an angle that drew a couple of defenders towards the touchline, and then threw an inside pass to put Jean de Villiers through a gap. The Stormers captain should be credited for his own timing and vision, as it was the subsequent chip kick over the Crusaders defence that set up Damian de Allende for a simple try. However, it should never be forgotten who sparked that counter-attack. It was an extraordinary play by an extraordinary player.

There’s an admiration for what Burger has achieved with the Boks over the past 10 years, and how he has played the game. Why else would the Currie Cup match between the Free State Cheetahs and Western Province on 27 September 2013 warrant such attention from the global media? Burger made his comeback in that fixture, and the world rose as one to celebrate his return. Then he made a statement in the Barbarians’ big win against Fiji in December, and then a physically dominant display against the Crusaders in March confirmed the performance had been no fluke.

Burger wasn’t just back for the sake of being back. He was back to being Schalk Burger. Again, this prompted a widespread celebration, not only in South Africa but also in New Zealand. While they cannot claim Burger as one of their own, the Kiwis can respect the manner in which he puts his body on the line.

Likewise in Australia. It was in the build-up to the Stormers’ battle with the Brumbies that former Wallabies flyhalf Stephen Larkham mentioned Burger in the same breath as US basketball icon Michael Jordan. Larkham, himself one of the greats, said Burger was like Jordan in that he inspired his team-mates through his own performance and thus encouraged them to compete at a higher level. ‘The first couple of games he has been finding his feet, but he is well and truly back,’ Larkham said.

And not a moment too soon. The Boks have lost Arno Botha and Pierre Spies to serious injuries, and could certainly use a player of Burger’s experience to shore up their loose-forward stocks. Bok coach Heyneke Meyer has been monitoring Burger’s progress since the player’s comeback in the 2013 Currie Cup. On the evidence of recent Super Rugby showings, Meyer will be satisfied that the flanker can still perform an influential role for the Boks.

– This article first appeared in the May 2014 issue of SA Rugby magazine

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