Burger back from menin­gi­tis to prove Spring­boks are a force

South Africa’s ver­sion of Botham has shown that any­thing is pos­si­ble, writes

The Daily Telegraph - Rugby World Cup - - Sport Rugby World Cup 2015 - Mick Cleary

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

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