Tuesday 19 March 2019

Schalk Burger back from the brink and ready to embrace All Black challenge

South Africa's Schalk Burger
South Africa's Schalk Burger

Ruaidhri O’Connor at Twickenham

Schalk Burger has been through the wringer to get to this point, so it is little wonder he is enjoying himself.

The South Africa vice-captain is relishing his second chance at this World Cup after overcoming bacterial meningitis in 2012. He came close to death, so much so that his wife summoned the family to say goodbye, so now that he has fought his way back to the World Cup semi-final against New Zealand he is determine to enjoy himself.

The veteran flanker cut a relaxed figure at this morning’s pre-match press conference as he looked forward to the eagerly anticipated clash of rugby’s greatest rivals at Twickenham.

And to understand where he is coming from, you only have to listen to coach Heyneke Meyer explain the 32-year-old’s comeback and state of mind.

“I still can’t work him out. He’s an amazing human being. If you check what he’s been through. For him just to be alive is great,” Meyer said earlier this week.

“He just enjoys life. I’m a bit more uptight at times and he’s more relaxed. You need that balance. He always has time for a joke. He’s still smiling before we go into battle, but when he gets on the field he’s a different human being.

“The way he came back, he really inspired the rest of the team. He puts the guys at ease. If I ask the guy why he plays rugby, he says it’s just to have a beer with his mates.”

So, that’s why the blonde wrecking ball, who was the villain of the piece during the 2009 Lions tour when he eye-gouged Luke Fitzgerald, now appears relaxed and confident ahead of what he described as the biggest game of his career.

He is in phenomenal form, making 80 carries in five games – 20 more than any other player, getting over the gainline 35 times and making 189m. That has resulted in two tries, while he has also been making plenty of tackles when the ‘Boks haven’t had the ball.

As part of the leadership group, Burger has contributed to the turnaround in fortunes the two-time world champions have experienced since that fateful opening day defeat to Japan in Brighton.

“It didn't start too rosy for us, this World Cup,” he said. “Obviously the weeks after that, Samoa and Scotland, was the toughest we've had as a group together. A lot of the credit goes to the coaching staff, but especially the senior players. I think they took ownership of the team and obviously the only way you can take ownership of the team is by playing well. I think all the senior players have put their hands up and have been playing really well.

“On my own form, I'm just enjoying my rugby. It's really nice to be in a Springbok jersey. A couple of years ago there was no chance of my getting back in here, so it's lovely to get another chance to play.

“Statistics is one thing, and it's very nice to read, but we're here for the team and serving for the team. Obviously if I'm playing well, it's good for them. Hopefully that will continue deep into the World Cup.”

Ruan Pienaar spoke earlier this week about how Burger has re-invented himself.

“What he went through was really bad,” he said. “I was in South Africa at the time and all his family and friends said he was close to dying, and for him to make a comeback like he has done is unbelievable, and the way  he is playing now is unbelievable.

“I think he’s probably changed the way he’s played in the last couple of years. I think he’s a really good ball distributor and he creates a lot for us. He’s just got a never-say-die attitude. He just flies into everything.  He’s probably one of the hardest guys I know.

“Even in defence and attack he just throws everything into it and to see him in this form is obviously great for us and I guess sometimes scary for the opposition.

“Once he crosses those four lines he becomes an animal. He’s been really, really outstanding for us in this World Cup and one of our key players in the team. To see him play like that is really important for us.

“He’s healthy now and stronger than ever but obviously this is his fourth World Cup so he brings a lot of experience, a lot of leadership, so to have someone like him is brilliant.”

Tomorrow, Burger gets to do battle with South Africa’s greatest rivals on the biggest stage and he is relishing the opportunity.

His father, Schalk senior, faced the New Zealanders who defied the ban on South Africa competing in international sport during the 1980s and toured under the ‘Cavaliers’ banner and he himself has faced the All Blacks 15 times, winning five.

“The rivalry is unique. Growing up in South Africa, my old man played against the Cavaliers in '86, or whatever it was. I grew up watching South Africa play the All Blacks, but again this is a massive game for us, the current crop of generation,” he said.

“It's such a small part of the history between the two nations, so what's quite remarkable is that we all respect each other, we're all friends. We've played against each other so much, so we can't wait for tomorrow to start.

“Hopefully the weather can hold out and we can put up a good spectacle. Obviously we want to win, that's why we're here.

“We want to beat the All Blacks, but at the end of the day they're such a quality outfit, it's not going to be easy. Hopefully for us, we can do something special tomorrow. We know they're a great side, it's not easy to contain them, but it's going to be a great experience.”

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