South Africa’s King of flankers Schalk Burger will play for the Barbarians at Twickenham – and is being courted to sign for Toulon in 2014.
Burger has not played rugby since tearing knee ligaments in February 2012 and then suffering from bacterial meningitis, which threatened his life. He was in intensive care for a fortnight and in hospital for a month.
Burger is the best flanker to have played for South Africa in the modern era. If Toulon sign him it would mean the entire 2007 World Cup winning Springbok starting loose-trio (Danie Rossouw, Juan Smith and Burger) would be playing for Toulon. Former Springbok flanker Joe van Niekerk has been playing at Toulon for the last five years.
Here’s a piece I wrote for SportsClub magazine celebrating the career of Burger and suggesting that he will be back – and when returns he won’t settle for just playing club, provincial or regional rugby.
Schalk Burger will play rugby again – and one of South Africa’s greatest loose-forwards is determined that he won’t settle for anything less than playing his way back into the Springbok squad.
Burger has never had to be taught lessons that there is life beyond rugby. The popular flanker has always espoused the virtues of a good glass of red wine, of rugby being a sport and a profession but never an obsession.
He is an international player who has never lived in the bubble of rugby professionalism. His father, Schalk Burger senior, was a Springbok and is a larger than life figure.
The Burger family love life in Wellington, South Africa. They embrace the joys of family, of farm life and of being South Africans. They’re a proud lot – proud of their heritage and equally proud of being South Africans in this age.
Burger, in his prime, was consistently ranked among the game’s best loose-forwards alongside New Zealand’s Richie McCaw and Australia’s George Smith. Whereas the latter two specialized as open-side flankers, Burger played as an open-sider, a closed-side option and even at No 8. He is probably at his most effective at No 8 or closed-side flanker when carrying the ball, but he could be as destructive in contesting the ball at the breakdown.
His international debut was low key at the 2003 World Cup but his first full season under Bok coach Jake White in 2004 was exceptional. It wouldn’t be inaccurate to describe his impact in 2004 and 2005 as extraordinary.
He was fearless and, in South Africa, without comparison.
‘He gives you the presence of three players and plays with a contribution of two. He is one of the best players I’ve ever coached,’ former Bok coach and Brumbies coach Jake White told me on several occasions.
White used to have a standard answer to anyone who questioned Burger’s right to selection in his days as Bok coach.
‘I’ll send Schalk and the next guy into a room with the jersey and close the door. The guy who comes out with the jersey is the one I will be picking … I can give you a guarantee it won’t be the other guy.’
White described Burger as a once in a generation type of player, as he has done when asked to elaborate about Australia’s Smith, whom he worked with at the Brumbies this season, and New Zealand’s McCaw.
‘They are three great players. Anyone who has watched them is privileged. I have coached two of them and consider myself fortunate and privileged. Their legacy is in their performance, in their professionalism and in their sustained excellence. They don’t play average, mediocre or bad games. The worst they deliver is a good outing.’
Burger, influential in South Africa’s 2007 World Cup win, has never felt the need to do much talking about his rugby or his impact. His work rate did the talking, his teammates did the talking about his impact, his coaches were never shy to talk about his worth and the opposition coaches were as expressive in their praise and respect for his qualities as a rugby player.
Ask any of his main rivals a question about Burger and they’d answer two-fold. Great player. Great bloke.
Burger was schooled in the ethos that rugby was a game played hard, but that you could only play it well if you were enjoying it – and to enjoy it you had to be fit. He preferred the traditional aerobic fitness and has never been a player first into the gym and last out of it.
He used to often joke that he wasn’t a fan of Tupperware muscles and physical imperfections were closer to rugby perfection when it came to international loose-forwards.
Burger believes that if you are bleeding then you generally know you have been in a game worthy to be called a Test.
He has always had the highest regard for battles with the All Blacks, courtesy of his upbringing. His father is a traditionalist when it comes to rugby and cricket. The young Burger and his brother and sister were always taught to respect themselves, respect the opposition and make friendships that last a lifetime.
And the kicker … it’s always nicer to braai with you mates when you have got one over them on the sports field through a fine performance.
The glass of wine or beer post match was as important as the on-field performance. Burger, in an age of one-off Tests and win at all costs mentality, has never forgotten the ethos of the sport.
He plays to win but not at the expense of enjoyment. If he was not enjoying the game he wouldn’t play it simply because he can be successful and because it pays reasonably well.
Burger could easily have said goodbye to rugby after knee ligament damage and nearly losing his life to bacterial meningitis. He doesn’t have to return to rugby to prove anything to anyone.
If he never plays again his record tells the story of his impact. The awards, in South Africa and internationally, are his to keep. They can’t be taken away and the words of opposition players, coaches, teammates and his own coaches are archived.
There is nothing to dispute or doubt about Burger’s career and there is nothing to doubt about his desire to return to rugby. He is doing it for the right reason. He wants to play again – and when
Burger wants to play rugby it’s ultimately for South Africa.
The best never settle for second best, so when Burger returns to the game in the next 12 months, expect to see him in a Bok jersey sooner rather than later.