Burger back from meningitis to prove Springboks are a force
South Africa’s version of Botham has shown that anything is possible, writes
They breed them big and they breed them for longevity in South Africa, none more so than Schalk Burger, the blond, broad-faced block of muscle that lay on his death bed little more than a couple of years ago, stricken with a meningitis bug that in the end could not defeat him or, more importantly, suppress his relish for the fray of life.
Burger is the Springboks’ Ian Botham, a man with an appetite for play on and off the field, one whose idea of a recovery drink is said to be a Castle Lager, a force of nature who takes his place in the middle of the South Africa back row to face Japan at Brighton’s Community Stadium on Saturday in his fourth Rugby World Cup.
Burger is part of a Springbok squad who have been bedevilled by injury and seeming loss of form, although even their below-par showing in the Rugby Championship, in which they lost at home to Argentina for the first time, still contained enough patches of typically forthright play to suggest that the two-time world champions are far from a faded entity. And the return to the front line from injury of world-class operators such as captain Jean de Villiers and scrum-half Fourie du Preez adds a layer of proven experience that would be the envy of any side. Hooker, Bismarck Du Plessis, fits that category, too, one of nine in today’s squad who were part of the 2007 World Cupwinning side. The Springboks field their most experienced ever starting line-up to take on Japan, boasting 880 caps.
Age has neither wearied or withered. And certainly not so in the case of Burger, 32, part of a distinguished Springbok heritage following in the footsteps of his father, also Schalk, who manages the family Wine Estate these days at Welbedacht near Wellington in the Cap, with another Springbok Burger to come if young son, Schalk Jnr, manages to emulate his elders. If anything, he appreciates the moment more now than he ever did following his brush with mortality early in 2013. Burger had gone into hospital to have a cyst removed that was putting pressure on his spinal cord only to contract
a bug in hospital that turned out to be bacterial meningitis. His health nosedived, he lost consciousness for five days, and the portents looked so distressing that his parents and wife, Michele, were summoned to the Cape Town hospital at one point, preparing for the worst. “I was battling heartbeat for heartbeat just trying to get through,” he said.
Burger, lost 20kgs and was in hospital for six weeks, undergoing several bouts of surgery. That Burger did manage to pull through is testimony to an irrepressible spirit, and the fine work of doctors, and was a significant enough event for him to win the Laureus Comeback of the Year award. Only last year, just 15 months after his recovery, he was man of the match against England at Twickenham. And his experiences have taught him that there is always hope, even if the Sprinboks have been written off. “For sure, anything is possible,” said Burger. “My perspective has certainly changed. Rugby is a huge part of my life, but now that I have a young family and after what I have been through, it is no longer everything. I didn’t think all those years ago, back in my first tournament in 2003, when everything was a bit wild, that I would still be going. But I am, and loving it.”
Burger will be able to add something particular to the team’s preparations for the opener against Japan having played club rugby there, as has Du Preez over a much longer period of time. Burger has urged his team-mates not to take anything for granted. “The Japanese get low, tackle low, too, with the chop tackle. The game there is quick, very quick, played at a very high tempo, something that we are not that familiar with as South Africans.” he said.
What is familiar to them is an unquenchable appetite for combat, a zeal and a passion that is reflected in the physicality of their play. And no one typifies that more than Burger, back where he belongs.
Still going strong: Schalk Burger is in his fourth World Cup