Saracens’ flanker and holder of 86 caps says rugby authorities must become more proactive as young Springboks are increasingly tempted by bigger pay cheques overseas, writes Robert Kitson for The Guardian
They call it the European Champions Cup but who are they kidding? When Schalk Burger arrives at the Stade Felix Mayol on Saturday afternoon for Saracens’ Pool 3 duel with Toulon he could almost be back in the southern hemisphere again.
Five capped South Africans – the home captain, Duane Vermeulen, plus Bryan Habana, Juan Smith, Juandré Kruger and Marcel van der Merwe are registered to play for Toulon in Europe this season. A total of 27 current or former Springboks – not counting those born in southern Africa who now represent other countries – are due to feature in Europe’s elite club tournament.
Super Rugby in disguise? At the last count there were more than 300 South African-reared players operating at various professional levels in Europe or Japan. All this at a time when Springbok rugby has never looked more fragile, the national team having shipped nine tries at home to New Zealand last Saturday.
When Burger met up with Habana and co on the eve of Saturday’s contest, the subject could hardly be avoided. “It hurts all of us who have played there for a long time,” said Burger, whose 86-cap Test career ended at last year’s World Cup. “I’m not too sure what the future is going to hold. At this moment it looks quite bleak out there.”
There may be no Table Mountain vistas in St Albans – “I’ve made my peace with that … I had it from 2002 until now and Table Mountain’s not going anywhere” – but the 33-year-old Burger, despite beginning a new life in England with his young family, will never forget his roots.
His lust for competition and life make him a popular team-mate; as the son of a former Springbok himself, he epitomises what South African rugby is presently missing. Having come close to death in early 2013, when he contracted bacterial meningitis while in hospital for an operation to remove a cyst next to his spine, he also has a healthy dollop of perspective. There are few better qualified to say where his proud rugby nation goes from here.
Economic reality, for now, is shaping everything. After years of wholehearted service to the Boks and Western Province, no one can blame Burger for heading north at the tail end of his career but the drain of younger players is a different matter. “The issue we’ve got now is the age at which we’re losing players overseas,” he says. “There’s no qualms about someone like myself, Duane or Francois Louw plying our trade overseas because we’ve done our bit for the Springboks over numerous years.
The big issue is losing the pros in the middle. The bloke who plays 200 games for his team, drives the everyday values, pitches up without complaining and plays 80 minutes every week … we’ve lost them in South Africa. Our pros are sitting in France or Japan or here. We’ve got top players and promising young players but nothing in the middle.”
The situation in England and France is increasingly poles apart. Saracens cannot speak highly enough of Burger’s positive influence on their academy players since his arrival and it is English youngsters who are soaking up precious knowledge from him and fellow former Western Province emigres Schalk Brits and Neil de Kock.
Visa restrictions in the UK make the Top 14 more attractive still – “The reality is you can’t compare what a pro can earn in South Africa and what he can earn in France,” Burger says – before you begin to factor in the political and unique selectorial imperatives within South African sport.
Either way, Burger believes these are crucial times for South Africa’s rugby authorities: “The warning signs were there last year and maybe the year before. We probably lost a few games we wouldn’t have lost in the past. We went through a phase when massive alarm bells were ringing but we probably had a good enough international side at the time to mask it.
“SA Rugby has to become more proactive. We’ve been a good rugby nation for so long and this is the first time we’re really in big crisis. We could have been more proactive in the past but now the issue is real. Everyone is looking ahead to 2019 but there’ll be no 2019 World Cup for the current crop of players if it goes on like this.”
He fears some potential stalwarts may not hang around to find out. “Young players now are probably more impatient or ambitious than we were. I was willing to sit in the queue behind Bob Skinstad, Corné Krige and others; eventually you started playing with them and became a better player for it,” Burger says. “The current generation in South Africa, whether it’s down to their agents or what they want to achieve, are moving away earlier.”
The short-term consequence is that more overseas-based players are set to be recalled for the first November Test against England at Twickenham. Ideally the previous weekend’s game against the Barbarians at Wembley would act as a useful warmup but it falls outside the official Test window so the head coach, Allister Coetzee, will be denied that luxury.
Burger offers one extreme longer-term solution: privately owned South African franchises playing European teams in the same timezone rather than endlessly hopping on planes to Australia and New Zealand: “The only time we’re going to get into Europe is when rugby as we know it in South Africa has a complete transformation, we get privately owned teams like the clubs over here and basically start a new competition.” As on the field, Burger is never afraid to go where others hesitate to tread.
Nothing, though, is more extraordinary than his comeback following the health scare that almost cost him his life. “After three days, when I wasn’t cured, the odds go against you,” he says. “Dying becomes a reality. Surviving without any scarring becomes an issue; coming out of it but being blind or paralysed. My missus phoned my best mates on day three and said: ‘This might be the last time you see him as you know him.’ As luck would have it I battled through and got through to the other side.”
Minor details such as ending Toulon’s unbeaten European Cup home record or replicating Saracen’s double triumph last season suddenly feel irrelevant. By next summer, you suspect Burger’s unquenchable spirit and physicality will be as woven into Saracens folklore as that of his retired namesake, Jacques Burger.
“He used to tackle with his face,” recalls Sarries’ latest Cape crusader. “I try and use my shoulder a bit more.” South Africa’s loss, not for the first time, is very much Saracens’ gain.