Heyneke Meyer spoke of his partiality to players with ‘character’ and in Schalk Burger he has the epitome of a man with real personality.
Burger, having made his first appearance in a Springbok jersey since the 2011 World Cup quarterfinal, had a media contingent in stitches when he expressed – in his own unique way – the joy of being back in Green and Gold.
In his 20-minute cameo for the Springboks against the World XV last week Burger handled the ball six times – three runs and three offloads. He made 20-odd metres with the ball in hand and even managed to evade a defender. The 31-year-old loose forward made a number of big hits and even missed a couple.
However, it was once he fronted up to the media that the ‘character’ came out.
He admitted that his life got put into perspective through a number of injuries and a life-threatening illness and that he is now taking it one game at a time.
“It is great getting out there and having fun, obviously also a bit of nostalgia involved being back at Newlands.”
However, it was when it came to the subject of the age of some of the current Bok forwards that Burger used his famed sense of humour to wade into the media.
He spoke of a cartoon in the local media that mocked the age of the players, depicting the coach handing our tablets to the older generation and just water to the younger, more energetic members of the squad.
The caption read: ‘Vir julle is daar pille en vir julle is daar water.’ [For you lot there are pills and for you lot water].
“I know I am balding, but I was in the group that received pills and I am at least six years younger than Victor Matfield,” Burger quipped, adding: “I think the pills [older players] didn’t do too badly [in beating a World XV 47-13].
“But next time, please don’t put me with the pills.”
On a more serious note, he admitted there was a time when he thought he would never play again.
“There has been a few guys I thought I would never play alongside again,” the Bok loose forward said, adding: “We had a corner in the dressing room [at Newlands] where Schalk Brits, Francois Louw and I sat, which is like a Stormers team of 2008.
“Then, obviously, to have Bakkies [Botha], Victor [Matfield] and Fourie [du Preez] back is amazing. It brought back some great memories, but more importantly to be able to play in the Green and Gold at Newlands was very special.”
He said now that he is back in the mix, it is important that he works even harder to ensure he adds value to the Bok set-up.
Speaking about his injury and illness and how it put life into perspective, Burger said before rugby played a much bigger part in his life – rugby “dominated” his life.
“Obviously a couple of weird things happened to me and while rugby is still a big part of my life, it doesn’t dominate my life.
“You also realise you are coming towards the end of your career and when you do get an opportunity it might be the last.
“I’m not a bit more relaxed about the game, I now try and express myself.”
Speaking about his pending move to Santory in Japan the veteran loose forward described it as a “big challenge”.
“All I have known is playing for Western Province, the Stormers at South Africa.
“I have been in a comfort zone here. I obviously have a young family. We’ve had a great support base here [in the Western Cape], but we are looking forward o the new challenge,”he said, adding that the key for his is to add value to Santory.
The Bok coach, Meyer, asked about Burger, spoke of the value he still adds to the Bok team.
“To use an old cliche, a piece of coal doesn’t mean much, but under pressure it turns into a diamond over time,” Meyer said.
“That is something you can’t coach.
“I have coached most of these players, since way back [in 1999] when I was an assistant [Bok coach]. However, it is the first time I have coached Schalk.”
Meyer said he doesn’t just look at the game when deciding about a player’s value.
“I [also] look at training and how they conduct themselves on and off the field. I have been very impressed with Schalk, he is a true warrior and he is a guy of character .
“The way he settled into the team, he is so humble and he is a very experienced head. I though he was awesome and he also brings something different.
“I believe he can play another 20, 30 or even 50 Tests for South Africa. He has always had great hands and soft touches. Now he can play at No.6, No.7 and No.8 and that makes him a great player coming off the bench.
“Where I was very impressed with him was [how he conducted himself] in training.”
Burger said he will gladly help out anywhere.
“At the moment I am just happy for any cap. I am at the stage of my career where I cherish it more than when I was 26 or 27.
“Hopefully I have a lot of value to add still.
“The big difference between now and the last Test I played [World Cup quarterfinal in 2011] is that back then I was the number one No.7 in the Bok team. I knew I was the starting No.7.
“Now I am in a different role and I don’t know the system as well as I knew it back then. I had to take in a lot of information.”
Asked about coming back from injury and illness he said: “You don’t lose the ability to play the game, it is just the conditioning that takes a while to come back.”
By Jan de Koning