JON CARDINELLI says Schalk Burger’s growth as a leader bodes well for the Boks in a World Cup year.
‘My timing sucks,’ Schalk Burger says, referring to his swollen thumb and an invisible metal pin that’s keeping the previously dislocated metacarpal in place. He looks at the immobilised hand again as he alludes to a Tri-Nations campaign that will proceed without him.
It’s been 11 months since Burger last played for the Springboks. He missed four Tests last November after sustaining a broken rib in the Currie Cup final. He’ll miss four more as he recovers from a thumb injury incurred in the Super Rugby semi-final defeat to the Crusaders on 2 July.
‘I did a few sums after that game and realised that I’d be cutting it pretty close in terms of getting ready for the World Cup,’ he says. ‘It’s also the type of injury that forces you to adapt completely. I now have to do everything with my left hand, from brushing my teeth to wiping my arse. I also can’t play any golf or go surfing, so that just adds to the frustration.’
While there’s no danger of Burger missing the World Cup, he will arrive at the tournament having not worn the iconic No 6 jersey in more than a year. Critics will question his right to start given that so many impressive loose forwards are pushing for inclusion, but in the end Peter de Villiers may favour reputation rather than form.
That’s not to say that Burger, when fit, has been anything short of outstanding. If anything, his performances in the 2011 Super Rugby competition have served to highlight attributes that will be needed by the Boks when they go to New Zealand with the aim of outmuscling opposition packs.
Burger embodied the Stormers’ challenge in the recent tournament, and his masochistic attitude was particularly prominent in the matches against South African opposition. According to former Bok captain Corné Krige, who was himself renowned for a robust and uncompromising style, Burger can make a similar impact at the World Cup.
‘I’m not sure if there are too many similarities between Schalk and I, he’s a much better player than I ever was,’ Krige says. ‘He’s a great all-round player; he can play to the ball, he’s a powerful ball-carrier and a phenomenal defender. When it comes to work rate, I don’t think anybody else in South Africa comes close.
‘He’s surpassed my greatest expectations. I remember sending his father a text after Schalk scored a try on debut against Georgia at the 2003 World Cup. I wrote, “This guy is going to be one of the big ones.” He’s achieved more than I ever dreamt he would, and the great thing for South African rugby is that he has more to give.’
The metal pin in Burger’s thumb will be removed after three weeks, and he will resume training thereafter. It’s unlikely that he will make his return to the Test arena before 11 September, although he admits that he’d love to have a run before the squad departs for the World Cup.
‘My body will get a chance to rest after a demanding Super Rugby season, and I will also have a chance to condition myself before the tournament in New Zealand. But I really wanted to play for the Boks in the Tri-Nations and take some match fitness into the World Cup.
‘It seems that I’m always getting my timing wrong,’ he says with a light chuckle that suggests he’s not completely concerned about missing the Tri-Nations. ‘I’ve been in this position before and have managed to come back. My first goal is to win a place in the squad, and thereafter I will use those group games to gather some momentum.’
The Boks won’t be playing any warm-up matches prior to the global showpiece, so it will be important for Burger to get some form of game time before the opening clash against Wales. Even if it means playing 40 minutes of rugby for Western Province in the Currie Cup, he will need the match practice.
‘I’m usually pretty focused on the task at hand, and when a Super Rugby campaign comes to an end, I shift my focus to the Tri-Nations. But because of this injury, I’m now already thinking about the World Cup,’ he says. ‘The big difference between this campaign and that of 2007 is that the schedule is far more congested and there’s hardly any time to prepare. In 2007, the training camp was longer and we played three warm-up matches against Namibia, Scotland and Connacht before we even got to France. This year we will go straight from the Tri-Nations into the World Cup, so our preparation and attention to detail needs to be spot on.
‘This will be my third World Cup, and the build-up to each campaign has been different. The 2003 campaign was a failure as we bombed out in the quarter-finals, but to be honest we didn’t really believe we were in with a shot of winning the tournament. It was quite the opposite in 2007 as we went into that competition ranked No 2 in the world, so we were confident. This year we have a lot of experienced players, and there’s the extra motivation for some who will view the tournament as their swansong.’
The Boks beat Ireland and Wales on last year’s tour of the home nations, and thus managed to garner valuable psychological currency ahead of the 2011 World Cup pool match against Wales and a possible quarter-final meeting with Ireland. Burger admits that while every victory helps to instil a sense of confidence, the Boks won’t be taking the Celtics for granted.
‘A year is a long time in rugby. You can strengthen your mental hold over a particular team by beating them regularly, but every match at the World Cup is a one-off and past results don’t count for much. It sounds clichéd, but you have to go into the tournament with a week-by-week strategy.
‘The pressure intensifies when you reach the play-offs. What we will need to do before we get to that stage is play a good brand of rugby and ensure that everything is in place. When you’re under pressure in a knockout game, you tend to revert to what you know, so we will be striving for perfection at an early stage.’
Experience and leadership are precious commodities in a do-or-die situation, and this is where Burger, as a veteran of 63 Tests and a member of the 2007 World Cup-winning group, will come to the fore.
He has led the Stormers and WP to three play-offs in the space of two seasons, and the fact that the Cape-based team hasn’t won a championship trophy is no indictment on his leadership ability. Burger is quick to challenge those who would call the Stormers’ recent season a failure just because they were hammered by the Crusaders in their semi-final. He also doesn’t agree with the view that the Stormers have developed the same choking problem that afflicts South Africa’s national cricket team in major tournaments.
‘I can see why some people would say that,’ he says. ‘The bottom line is that we still haven’t won a championship trophy. It can become an issue if you get so close to winning and then fall at the last hurdle; it will always be in the back of your mind. But what people need to remember is that there are also a lot of senior Bok players in this Stormers team who know what it takes to win big tournaments having enjoyed success with the Boks in a World Cup, Tri-Nations or British & Irish Lions series. We were thumped by the Crusaders in that particular semi-final, but I don’t think you could go so far as to suggest it was part of a bigger mental problem.’
Krige was disappointed with the Stormers’ limp showing, but agrees with Burger in declaring the season a relative success. A former Stormers captain himself, he also believes that Burger is the right man to take the franchise forward, and that his burgeoning leadership skills will be a boon to the Boks.
‘I had my doubts initially about Schalk as a captain because I thought he didn’t want it enough, but he’s proved me wrong with some passionate and determined performances,’ says Krige. ‘He leads by example which is exactly what a captain needs to do. It’s a pity he never got the chance to carry that form through to the Tri-Nations because he would have added value to the Boks’ leadership core.
‘A good captain will always look to surround himself with strong leaders. It’s something I never had the luxury of as captain of the Boks back in 2003, as while I had the likes of Schalk, Victor Matfield, Bakkies Botha, Juan Smith, Jaque Fourie and Jean de Villiers in my team, they were all at the start of their respective careers. I would have loved to have played alongside them once they had amassed more than 50, and in some cases 100, caps because the more experience you’re able to draw on, the easier your job becomes as a captain. Schalk has shown that he can be as valuable a leader as a player in Super Rugby, and he will surely bring that through to the Boks in their World Cup campaign.’
There are those who have criticised Burger’s leadership style and accused him of being too laid-back to be entrusted with the ultimate responsibility. And yet, the 2011 season has witnessed a few moments where he has shown exactly what the team and its success means to him. Burger celebrated wildly after the Stormers’ come-from-behind win against the Blues in late May, an uncharacteristic show of elation that may have surprised local and foreign fans alike.
‘You’re always going to get emotionally involved as the leader of a team,’ he says. ‘That Auckland game was massive in the context of the season, as if we had lost that match, we would have been on a three-game losing streak and staring at the prospect of missing a qualifying place. So when the final whistle went I just let rip. It was a massive achievement in the context of the game and in the context of our season, and I just let the emotions come pouring out.
‘As you get older, you take on more responsibility, and I’ve discovered that I enjoy the responsibility of being captain. I haven’t let it detract from my individual performances because I believe that a captain and indeed every senior player needs to lead from the front.’
While the major decisions will fall to Smit and vice-captain Victor Matfield, Burger will be at the forefront of the Boks’ charge for an unprecedented third world title. Fate may have dealt him a poor hand on the eve of the 2011 Tri-Nations, but it’s at the global tournament itself where South Africa’s quintessential hardman will be looking to get his timing exactly right.
– This article first appeared in the August issue of SA Rugby magazine. The September issue – a 260-page World Cup special – will be on sale from 24 August.