Victor Matfield is not the only Springbok legend making a return in Super Rugby after two years on the sidelines, with Schalk Burger also on a mission to get back to his best.
Whilst Matfield is coming back from retirement to play for the Bulls, Burger’s situation is somewhat different with injuries having cost him two years of his career, and after easing back into it through a few Currie Cup cameos last year the Stormers loose forward is ready to give his big comeback a full crack.
Although he has hardly played any rugby since injuring his knee in the first Super Rugby game of 2012, Burger has not missed one pre-season, and after another tough conditioning phase he is desperate to show that he still has what it takes to mix it with the best.
“The body is feeling good and I am training nicely. We will obviously get an indication of how these warm-up games go conditioning-wise, but the mind is fresh and hopefully the body can keep up,” he told this website.
Burger said that the major challenge for himself and Matfield will be to meet the physical demands of Super Rugby after such a lengthy break from the game.
“Obviously he [Matfield] made a decision himself to retire and now he is coming back, it is still going to be a big challenge for him to come back. We don’t lose the ability to play rugby, but I think the physical step-up is a tough one for him to get back to where he was.
“He is a quality player and you would be a fool to bet against him.
“For me it is different, mine got taken away from me – I wasn’t finished like he was – I still wanted to play but unfortunately I got injured twice,” he explained.
After featuring as an impact player off the bench for Western Province in the Currie Cup, Burger put in an impressive 80-minute performance for the Barbarians against Fiji at the end of last year which he says gave him plenty of confidence that he can get back to the player he was before the injuries.
“I got back into Currie Cup and I think that playing for the Barbarians was really good for my confidence. I got through 80 minutes on an international stage at quite a high level.
“I maybe just needed some affirmation that I can still do it. So for me it was good playing there and now I have had a full pre-season with the guys and I am looking forward to kicking on from there,” he said.
Although he is anxious to reach the heights that saw him named South African Player of the Year in 2011 just before he first got injured, Burger is realistic and knows that it will not happen overnight.
He is hoping to build some momentum in his personal game through the Super Rugby season whilst also performing an important leadership role as Stormers vice-captain.
“The danger is that I will always be compared to what I am playing like now to before the two injuries, but I think I am patient and the more I play the better I will get so hopefully the injuries stay away and I can get a run of quite a few games under my belt,” he said.
The Stormers have some impressive depth at loose forward with Boks Burger, Duane Vermeulen and Siya Kolisi being pushed by the likes of Nizaam Carr, Deon Fourie, Rynhardt Elstadt and Michael Rhodes.
Burger believes that this opens up opportunities to rotate players in order to keep them at their peak throughout the season.
“Super Rugby is notoriously tough on loose forwards, especially down in Cape Town, so maybe we can get some rotation happening. Resting a few guys here and there might work in our favour, we have got phenomenal loose forwards and we have got some interesting options to look at.
“There are a lot of youngsters, a lot of talent and we have just got to get the balance right in the loose trio. We have got a lot of options to explore so it is exciting. There are other positions where we might be a bit thin, but not at loose forward.
“A little competition is always good, it keeps you on your toes, and I think it will really spur us on as a combination,” he said.
One of Burger’s main strengths is his versatility, having started his career on the openside and eventually moving to the blindside, and he is confident that he will be able to adapt his game to the needs of the team this season.
“I think I will be pretty much open to every position, it is just about getting the right combinations. I don’t think it is an area of concern, we have got so much depth at loose forward,” he said.
The 68-Test veteran feels that he added a more creative element to his game after winning the World Cup in 2007, and is keen to continue that trend when he gets the chance this season.
“I think I started developing my game around 2007, it takes a while but I started getting it right towards the end. I will try and offload a bit more than maybe some of the other guys.
“There is a balance, certain games don’t allow you to do that, you feel like you are under pressure to bust the line and other times there is a bit more space and a bit more freedom,” he said.
Those expecting Burger to be the player he was two years ago from the outset this season are likely to be disappointed, but despite the inevitable rustiness there is no doubt that his time out injured has provided plenty of motivation.
In fact, his assessment of Matfield’s comeback could well be applied to himself: “He is a quality player and you would be a fool to bet against him.”
By Michael de Vries