Tuesday 10 December 2019

Maturing Boks legend Burger has swallowed his pride

Legend 'sheepish' over Fitzgerald incident

South Africa's Schalk Burger in Stillorgan yesterday at the team announcement. Picture credit: Barry Cregg / SPORTSFILE
South Africa's Schalk Burger in Stillorgan yesterday at the team announcement. Picture credit: Barry Cregg / SPORTSFILE
David Kelly

David Kelly

ONCE a flawed, if gifted, exponent of back-row play, Schalk Burger has matured, as men so often do, with the advent of marriage and fatherhood.

The world's best player a decade ago, his brief sojourn in Japanese club rugby - always handy for childcare expenses after Nicol this March joined brother Schalk Jnr in the Tokyo household - has reduced him to a bench role with the Boks this week.

"It's been a while," says the try-scorer in defeat here back in 2009; he has missed the two subsequent wins. "It's great being back. We brought some lovely South African weather this time. It's phenomenal. Hopefully it holds out for tomorrow because we have a golf appointment."

He has tasted some Irish hospitality, in Gleeson's and Dicey's - where he wasn't charged for water. "How do you know I wasn't drinking something else?"

Is that why he is benched, then? "Ha, maybe! I'm looking forward to tasting the different lines of Guinness. Most of it is going through a second fermentation process at home. The people have always been very friendly here."

It has not always been so. Five years he arrived here in a whirlwind of controversy; the ugly shadow of his gouging of Luke Fitzgerald in the second Lions Test still brewing up a significant storm.

INQUIRY

Bizarrely, the incident was witnessed by touch judge Bryce Lawrence who reported it to match referee Christophe Berdos; the French man deemed it merely a yellow-card offence but the flanker was subsequently cited by the commissioning officer for "making contact with the eye area" and then handed an eight-week ban.

A subsequent inquiry by judicial officer Alan Hudson concluded that contact with the face was made and there was no intention to gouge Fitzgerald's eyes but that Burger acted "contrary to good sportsmanship by making contact with the face in the eye area".

The player robustly denied the claims and then coach, the hapless Peter De Villiers, heaped ignominy upon indignity by insisting that rugby was not ballet; he continued to dance around the issue when arriving in Dublin months later.

Five years on, the dust has settled and the player appears, upon mature reflection as they say, to have adopted a more conciliatory and redemptive attitude.

"There was a lot of focus on me the last time I played here after the Lions tour," he says with unwitting understatement.

"Myself and Luke Fitzgerald had a bit of a small argument in the first minute of the game. And that followed me over here. Ireland beat us that day.

"These things happen. If you look back on your career, I'm sure you'll always regret a few things. This is the way life happens. It's a long time gone. These things happen.

"Okay you feel a little sheepish about it. Rugby is one of those games where I've always worn my heart on my sleeve. It's probably not my proudest moment. But it's happened. I'm back here and now looking forward to my weekend."

He will return to Super Rugby after cashing in over in Japan, where the speed of the game and has surprised him; so too the transition to semi-professional rugby; most of his colleagues work 8-5 so he trains - old school - at night.

"But the game still stays the same," insists Burger, whose Suntory sojourn has not prevented him returning to the Springboks for the first time in three years.

"Rugby is rugby. It doesn't get any easier. The game does happen at a different level. Over here, the sport is upper body dominant. While there, it's all leg tackles, ruck carries are low, ball-carries are super low.

"It takes a while to adjust but the speed of the game is immense. So what it may lack in physicality, it compensates in speed. Look, it's much more relaxed off the field.

"I don't think it's a physical as the rugby we play back home but I have enjoyed the challenge. It's a different game. We're playing really nicely there.

"It's a good challenge although I'll be back for Super Rugby next year with the Stormers. At the moment it's working out well and I'm hoping my reasonably good form can continue.

"I do two hours a day and the rest of it is with my family. We live in Tokyo so it's tough to get used to the hustle and bustle. Whenever I feel a little encroached, I go to the vineyard my dad owns back home, sink a few bottles and hit a few balls into the dam."

He is not the wild man of yore any more; he has accumulated seven yellow cards in his 73-cap, 11-year career - once for abusing a touch judge - but has assumed more equilibrium with advancing age.

"For me, it's lovely being back," says Burger, whose career was threatened twice, once with serious neck surgery and then with bacterial meningitis.

"I've had 18 months away through more injury and illness. So just getting back playing rugby was a big goal for me. Then after that, you get greedy and want more. You're playing well and want to push back into the international set-up again.

"It's been wonderful being back. As you get older, you have family and young kids, your perception changes compared to when I was 20. Then, rugby is the only part of your life.

"Now you have to share responsibilities with others. So it's great being back with the Springboks. I thoroughly enjoy every minute I play."

He remains a hard man on the field but, you feel, a darned sight more mellow off it.

A fierce competitor to the last, he may even deign to buy a beer for Fitzgerald after the game.

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