Burger’s better than ever

JON CARDINELLI, writing in SA Rugby magazine, says Schalk Burger has refined his game to become the complete loose forward.

‘My ribs are bladdy sore,’ Schalk Burger confided after the Currie Cup final press conference at Kings Park.

He shrugged when probed on the severity of the injury, and how it would affect his Grand Slam tour prospects. He wasn’t optimistic.

Thirty-three minutes into the first half, the immovable Burger had clashed with the irresistible Willem Alberts. As the Western Province captain struggled to his knees, he clutched his chest. His hand surveyed the damage while the asphyxiating pain confirmed the worst. Burger needed to make a call.

It was one of those defining moments where a player’s true character is revealed. Charl McLeod’s chip, Pat Lambie’s linebreak and Alberts’ bone-crunching hit on Burger would all go down in history as game-changing moments. Burger’s decision to play the remaining 47 minutes with a broken rib, however, would be career-defining. The decision encapsulated a commitment to not only his chosen team, but his chosen profession too.

Most players would have stayed down. The Sharks had raced to a 23-3 lead and were beating WP in all facets of the game. There was also the Grand Slam tour to consider. If Burger stayed down, the risk of further injury would diminish. The chances of featuring on that tour would improve.

Burger got up. Two minutes after his altercation with Alberts, he scored a try for the visitors. WP set up a drive from the lineout, and Burger took it upon himself to place the ball over the line. It was another painful decision that would result in a pile of bodies pressing his broken rib into the Kings Park turf, but it was a decision that led to seven points for his team right before half-time.

Pain for pleasure has always been an acceptable exchange as far as Burger’s concerned. The Bok flanker consistently concedes his pound of flesh for the South African cause. He set the standard for commitment in his breakout year, and at 27, he is South Africa’s benchmark yet again.

There have been countless tales about the cult figure aligned to Chuck Norris, stories that are rooted in fact and fiction. Burger doesn’t wear protective gear, and while his coaches brag about his high pain threshold they’re secretly afraid that he may push himself to the point of serious injury. When you pick Schalk Burger, you know what you’re getting, but you have to live with the fact that sooner or later he’s going to push himself too far.

His mortality was confirmed in 2006, when a neck injury sidelined him for the whole season. Since then, he’s struggled with incessant leg injuries as well as a few rib problems incurred through some overly robust play. Then there was the suspension for eye-gouging in the second Test against the British & Irish Lions that cast his reputation as a hard but fair player into doubt. It was an incident that would force him to alter his approach ahead of the 2010 season.

While he’s maintained that incurably abrasive attitude and a perseverance that sometimes borders on sadomasochism, Burger has refined his game. His perennial strengths have undoubtedly contributed to his standing as the Boks’ best player in the past season, but his improved decision-making and discipline has allowed him to evolve beyond the role of breakdown bully. The new and improved Burger is the complete loose forward.

‘I used to be pretty fiery as a youngster,’ he remembers with a smile, ‘but I’ve learnt to deal with the on-field pressure. It certainly is something that comes with experience, and the injuries and suspension last year also afforded me a lot of time to reflect. Something had to change. I’m happy to say that I’ve cut out the nonsense and concentrated on the rugby.’

It’s a simple statement laced with deeper meaning. Burger never gives much away during an interview, and his laid-back manner lends itself to the perception that he doesn’t take his rugby too seriously. But his feats between the four white lines challenge that perception, not least of all the decision to play on with a broken rib in the Currie Cup final. While his off-field persona used to be in direct contrast with the rabid beast hurling itself into the opposition every Saturday, Burger has started to apply some intelligence and temperament to his performances. His power now has a purpose.

‘In a Springbok team that wasn’t firing, he was outstanding this season,’ says Bok assistant coach Gary Gold. ‘Schalk falls into the category of a responsibility-taker. He hunts for the ball, he constantly looks for work to do. He’s always had a phenomenal work-rate, as I remember doing an analysis where he made 70 positive contributions in a match; that’s an incredible stat if you realise that the ball is only in play for 40 minutes.

‘But since he was awarded the Stormers captaincy at the beginning of the year, he’s been a better player. He’s really improved his discipline over the past 12 months.’

Gold recalls when Burger first arrived on the Test scene.

‘He had a tendency to push the boundaries and picked up the odd yellow card or two. He’s got better in recent years, and the Stormers captaincy has made a difference to the way he’s approached the game in 2010. You can see that he’s using all his experience when making the decision of when to push the boundary, and when to leave the ball alone. When you add all of those good decisions up, it’s not hard to understand why he was nominated as one of the [South African] players of the year.’

Burger’s journey back to his fearsome best and beyond has been gradual. He’d finished the 2009 season behind Heinrich Brüssow in the back-row pecking order, so he couldn’t afford to be complacent in the subsequent Super 14. Even when Brüssow was ruled out with a season-ending knee injury, Burger continued to gather momentum for what would be an unforgettable period. From the Stormers’ first tour match against the Western Force, Burger’s performances improved dramatically. He’s missed fewer tackles, made some momentum-shifting hits and boasted a gain line average of 90%. He also began to display some neat touches in other areas of his game; his linking play contributing largely to the Stormers’ new attacking brand.

‘Schalk’s an exceptional passer of the ball,’ notes Gold. ‘Teams still use him as the primary ball-carrier from the lineout, but his ability to make those sharp offloads once he hits the line makes him doubly dangerous. Some loose forwards are predictable in the way they tuck the ball under the arm, but Schalk will keep defenders guessing.

‘His improvement in this area is not as much down to the law change as it is to the way [Stormers/WP coach] Allister Coetzee and [WP senior professional coach] Rassie Erasmus have used him in that set-up. The law changes have played into Schalk’s hands, as attacking players who like to carry the ball have become more prominent. He’s made some fantastic contributions such as the Hail-Mary pass in the Currie Cup semi-final [which led to a try for Francois Louw] and even the offload from their signature lineout move culminated in a Bryan Habana try.’

Gold is referring to the law change which prescribes that the first defender makes the tackle before the second defender competes for possession. It’s necessitated a revision in roles for men like Burger, especially on defence. On attack, he can often be found in the wider channels where his underrated  passing skills and sharpened decision-making are utilised to the team’s benefit.

‘The attacking side is favoured this season, so I’ve had more opportunities to have a go,’ Burger says. ‘I started working on my running lines and offloading a lot more in 2007, and it became a big feature of my game. I’ve played more of a linking role at the Stormers than at the Boks this year because my responsibilities differ and the game plans differ.’

Along with the Bulls, the Stormers were the quickest to adapt to the new law interpretations in the 2010 Super 14. Burger, Louw and Duane Vermeulen comprised the tournament’s form loose trio, blending traditional physicality with modern guile and innovation. Though Burger and Louw were called up to the national squad after the Super 14, the Bok pack was unable to replicate the feats of the Stormers. In fact, the Boks were badly beaten by the All Blacks and Wallabies in the forward exchanges.

Nevertheless, Burger’s performances in Australasia and during the home leg of the Tri-Nations commanded respect. The Boks finished the tournament in last place with team morale at a low, but when Burger returned to WP, his skills were again exploited to full effect. He captained the side to the domestic final, and while WP fared horribly in the decider, not enough credit was given to Burger in the aftermath.

There’s a perception that Burger’s not the player he once was. He was such a dominant force during the 2004 and 2005 Test seasons, but the neck injury of 2006 proved a big setback and some argued that he’d never again carry that game-changing clout.

While Burger plateaued in 2008 and failed to improve in 2009 due to a string of injuries and suspension, 2010 has been different. This was a year where he finally evolved to the point where he can offer the Boks various options should they ever embrace a multi-dimensional game.

And if he gets knocked down, he’ll get up and play on. He won’t make any outrageous public promises about dying on the field for the Springboks; he’d rather let his trademark physicality underscore a fierce pride and commitment to his team. What more could a coach, and indeed a rugby-mad country, ask for?

– This first appeared in the December issue of SA Rugby magazine.

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