The good, the lads and the ugly, by Burger

The Rugby Paper - - Interview -

Schalk Burger has scaled most of the high peaks in the game, in­clud­ing reach­ing the sum­mit as part of South Africa’s 2007 World Cup-win­ning side. Be­fore the craggy 34-year-old Spring­bok icon joined Sara­cens this sea­son he had played in four World Cups, been part of a win­ning se­ries against the Lions in 2009, and won two Tri-Na­tions ti­tles (2004 and 2009) in an 86-cap in­nings span­ning the 13 sea­sons from 2003 to 2015.

How­ever, three years ago, the ar­che­typal big, ag­gres­sive, bat­tling South African flanker faced his steep­est climb of all, sur­viv­ing an at­tack of bac­te­rial menin­gi­tis, fol­low­ing an op­er­a­tion to re­move a cyst, which left him at death’s door.

When I met Burger as Sara­cens bid for an­other Euro­pean Cup and Premier­ship dou­ble got un­der­way in earnest this week, he told me he had mel­lowed and found a new out­look on life as a re­sult of the ex­pe­ri­ence.

“I was fight­ing...there was anger, rage and con­fu­sion. I was just bat­tling. I got the feel­ing that if I was go­ing to give up it was over. But I was newly mar­ried and had a three­month-old baby, so I had ev­ery rea­son to bat­tle. When you get through some­thing like that your per­spec­tive on life changes. Be­fore, all you think about is rugby. But after that, rugby is a part of life, al­beit im­por­tant, but there are more im­por­tant things.”

This is ev­i­dent not just in the in­valu­able men­tor­ing role that the qui­etly charis­matic Burger of­fers to the young for­ward tal­ent at Sara­cens, but also in his will­ing­ness to talk about some of the game’s thornier is­sues more openly than those with nar­rower vested in­ter­ests.

It is re­flected in his call in our Page 2 story for South Africa to look North and be­come part of the Six Na­tions and the Euro­pean Cup, and also to his re­grets over the eye-goug­ing in­ci­dent in­volv­ing the 2009 Lions winger, Luke Fitzger­ald.

Equally, hav­ing played against the All Blacks more than most in­ter­na­tional play­ers would do in two ca­reers, and beaten them in five Tests – in­clud­ing twice in New Zealand – Burger knows the pit­falls the 2017 Lions must avoid. Yet, he warns that his Sara­cens team-mates Owen Far­rell, Ge­orge Kruis, Maro Itoje, Jamie Ge­orge, and Billy and Mako Vu­nipola will not be the lambs to the slaugh­ter pre­dicted by the book­ies.

How­ever, it’s Euro­pean Cup fi­nal busi­ness against Cler­mont in Ed­in­burgh on Satur­day that is up­per­most on Burger’s mind – and with it the chance to lay a bo­gey to rest. He re­veals that de­spite a stel­lar in­ter­na­tional ca­reer he has not won any ti­tles at pro­vin­cial/club level.

“Next Satur­day is the big­gest game of the sea­son. For me it’s a land­mark, and it’s ex­cit­ing. In 14 sea­sons I never won a Su­per Rugby fi­nal with the Storm­ers, or the Cur­rie Cup with Western Prov­ince – Jean de Vil­liers and my­self were both in­jured when WP won the ti­tle.”

His as­sess­ment of the team stand­ing in the way? “Cler­mont look abra­sive, di­rect, and they play with a tempo which suits them. The French play to their strengths, and once they get their big car­ri­ers play­ing at the tempo they want they are dif­fi­cult to stop – so you can­not let them do that.

“The eas­i­est game is when you turn up and con­trol the pace and tempo from minute one to 80 – and early on you win the big mo­ments. But I’ve played in enough big games to know it does not al­ways go ac­cord­ing to plan. The abil­ity to adapt is para­mount.”

How­ever, Burger’s en­thu­si­asm for the Euro­pean Cup is un­bri­dled, and he says his first sam­ple in Sara­cens su­perb vic­tory in Toulon ear­lier this sea­son started it.

“It’s not of­ten you are in­volved in a side that plays close to perfect rugby for 40 min­utes. Those are the games you dream of, and that first 40 against Toulon was glo­ri­ous. It was my first taste, and it will be hard to match!” He also holds the Premier­ship in high es­teem: “In terms of in­ten­sity th­ese two com­pe­ti­tions are as good as any­thing I’ve played in. They are right up there in terms of qual­ity and skill. The best South­ern Hemi­sphere com­pe­ti­tion I ever played in

was the old Su­per 12, when all the tal­ent was con­densed. It was a bit like a sprint played over three months. The Premier­ship is more like a marathon, and I like the mix of a block of Euro­pean games where you have to be right on it.”

Burger says: “Cul­ture­wise Sara­cens and the Storm­ers are very sim­i­lar. Bren­dan Ven­ter in­stilled val­ues that still hold true at Sara­cens – every­one is ap­proach­able, and there is a lot of heart. The big ad­van­tage here is the lack of travel, so you can coach ev­ery week with full play­ing and coach­ing re­sources. In Su­per Rugby you are per­ma­nently on the road, and only travel with 25 or 26 play­ers – and with Ar­gentina and Ja­pan hav­ing joined the travel side is even harder.”

He adds: “With the Storm­ers you have a mas­sive turnover of play­ers ev­ery year, and your cul­ture changes. Whereas at Sara­cens they have kept the same group for about eight years, and are put­ting them­selves in the way of tro­phies. At Sara­cens cer­tain in­di­vid­u­als en­hance the cul­ture, and it gets moulded around them – there is not the same con­stant chang­ing of the guard that you get in South Africa.” So, does he be­lieve that the ‘Sara­cens Six’ in the Lions squad will carry that mould with them and be­come Test starters? “The Sar­ries guys are all good enough play­ers to make it, and top-qual­ity blokes who are de­ter­mined.” Burger says that the 2017 Lions squad has steel. “This is a very good Lions squad, and this group will not be beaten be­fore they get out there – there will be a lot of be­lief. New Zealand is a rugby na­tion that re­spects teams that ful­fil the chal­lenge of play­ing against the All Blacks. Of­ten teams go there and a lot has been said, but they do not ful­fil the chal­lenge.” He draws on his own ex­pe­ri­ence to of­fer this ad­vice: “I played in Spring­bok teams that beat New Zealand on a num­ber of oc­ca­sions, and won a cou­ple of times over there, in Dunedin (2008) and Hamilton (2009). The sec­ond time was par­tic­u­larly sweet be­cause we won

the Tri-Na­tions. New Zealand are even more of an all-round team now, but wher­ever the Spring­boks put them un­der a lot of pres­sure we did well."

Bur­gen says: “It will be tough to beat New Zealand – his­tory shows it. That's why the first Test is very im­por­tant. The Lions have got a bru­tal sched­ule – and that will be where the team will be tested. Some-times it's not just pick­ing the best play­ers, but the best team.

How long it takes the Lions to set­tle will give us a clear in­di­ca­tion of how the Test matches will go, be­cause those New Zealand fran­chis-es will be up for it.”

He adds that the lack of prepara-tion time can be off­set: “The good thing when you have so much tal­ent at your dis­posal is that, like Bar­bar-ian side, if you get the right play­ers in the right po­si­tions, they in­stinc-tively do he right thing. So, if you get the team cul­ture right, the rugby 'sense' can come to­gether quickly.”

Bur­gen says that a bonus for the Lions is that the All Blacks are a known quan­tity.

“You know the All Blacks are not go­ing to change, be­cause it’s a style they’ve played for the last 15 years. That’s the easy part. What a lot of peo­ple un­der­es­ti­mate – be­cause they see the beau­ti­ful tries, skills, and off­loads – is how phys­i­cal they are. New Zealand pride them­selves on how good their set-piece and li­ne­out is, and a kick­ing game of re­cent times that has bossed the rest of the world.”

He adds: “The Lions would be fool­ish to think they will play New Zealand at their own game (and win), but this team, like South Africa, will have in­her­ent strengths, and you have to take the bull by the scruff of the neck and play rugby. You can­not be one-di­men­sional or overly con­ser­va­tive, and you have to put them un­der pres­sure.”

Burger sums up: “The big­gest dif­fer­ence be­tween South Africa and the All Blacks in the re­cent past is just how good they are at tak­ing their op­por­tu­ni­ties.

“The Lions are go­ing to cre­ate op­por­tu­ni­ties, and if they con­vert them they will put the All Blacks un­der pres­sure. But we know also that if the All Blacks cre­ate six op­por­tu­ni­ties they will put four of them away. It’s never easy, and it won’t be for the Lions – but War­ren Gat­land knows the cul­ture well enough. I can’t wait to watch it.”

As for his own ex­pe­ri­ence of the Lions, Burger fronts-up over his dis­missal for goug­ing Fitzger­ald, but says he still feels the elec­tric­ity around the 2009 se­ries.

“The Lions in South Africa only comes round once ev­ery 12 years, so it’s a once-in-a-ca­reer op­por­tu­nity for us, whereas a Lions player might get two or three bites at the cherry.”

“Ob­vi­ously, the start of the sec­ond Test was not the great­est Bok mo­ment of my life. I was in­jured for the first Test, which we won com­fort­ably, but in the sec­ond I got yel­low carded 50 sec­onds into it for eye-goug­ing – and then later got sus­pended for eight weeks, so I didn’t play a part in the third Test.

“The sec­ond Test was one of the big­gest roller-coast­ers any of that Spring­bok team ever played in – and we got off to a bad start due to me. Then we got back in the match and it was go­ing each way un­til the 82nd minute when Morne Steyn slot­ted a penalty to save my ba­con.”

Burger takes stock: “Look, in one’s ca­reer there are var­i­ous times when you get it wrong – and there is one where I got it slightly wrong – but it’s one of those things.

“You don’t ever en­ter a game with bad in­ten­tions, but it’s some­thing that hap­pens on the spot. There was prob­a­bly a bit of frus­tra­tion be­cause I missed the first Test, and really wanted to play in it.”

He adds: “The sec­ond Test was phe­nom­e­nal to watch – and it felt like that to play in. When you have a chance to close out the Test se­ries like that, you don’t want it to go to the third Test match. It was a true test of our met­tle – just an epic game.”

Now in the sun­set of a sim­i­larly epic ca­reer, Schalk Burger is hop­ing to close out his first sea­son at Sara­cens in style – with vic­tory over Cler­mont the first call.

Still go­ing strong: Schalk Burger

PIC­TURE: Getty Images

Up for the chal­lenge with Sara­cens and the Lions: Mako Vu­nipola, and brother Billy hold the Euro­pean Cup

Right stuff: Jamie Ge­orge

Top qual­ity: Ge­orge Kruis

De­ter­mined: Maro Itoje

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