BURGER FOR BURGER AT SARACENS AS SCHALK ARRIVES TO REPLACE JACQUES; ONE IMMENSE PRESENCE IN THE DRESSING-ROOM FOR ANOTHER. SARACENS HAVE GOT THEMSELVES A DIAMOND.
Opinion has always been sharply divided about Schalk Burger; the great debate being, is he more useful to his team on the pitch or in the pub? It’s a ticklish one. Yes, he has a gazillion caps and a World Cup winners’ medal but, then again, his infectious, gregarious, old school, larger-than-life, what’ll-you-have attitude is a mighty adhesive in any dressing room. Here is a man you could frisk in the middle of the night and – somewhere in his pajamas – find a bottle opener and a pair of BBQ tongs.
‘Look, much as I like the cut and thrust of the pub I do still look forward to my eighty minutes of rugby,’ he says. ‘What I’m not so good these days at is the training although on the pitch I’m enjoying life here at Saracens as much as I’ve ever done. But then again, the reason we all play the game in the first place is to share a beer afterwards.’
Saracens – smart people that they are – have long since run a recruitment policy which holds the man to be the measure of the player, so not surprisingly – given their South African connections – they’ve been on Schalk Burger’s tail for several years. They haven’t exactly stalked him but their persistence would be accurately described as dogged.
‘It did seem that every time my contract was up for renewal, Saracens were asking the question especially during the last few seasons,’ he says. ‘Three years ago there was certainly an option but I went to Japan and absolutely loved it. I did have a chat last year with a certain club in France’ – no prizes for guessing which one that was – ‘but at the end of the World Cup the Saracens coaching staff took me out for a couple of beers and I said yes. I’m the cheapest date in rugby.’
There are bespoke suits that don’t fit as snugly as Schalk Burger and certainly he has dived into the deep end here at Saracens with barely a ripple. Certainly there wasn’t much of an initiation ceremony. At his first team meeting he was invited to warble a few songs and show off some dances moves – ‘it was a shuffle to the left and a shuffle to the right; I don’t think I fooled anybody’ – and that was about it.
Which means that by Saracens usual standards he got off lightly. Namesake Schalk Brits once came into training to announce that Mrs. Brits was pregnant, whereupon his gleeful team-mates jammed him into the inside of a tractor tyre, rolled him down the nearest hill and belted rugby balls at him, blissfully unaware that the tyre was full of the previous night’s downpour. In fairness to the mellow Schalk Brits, he did see the funny side of it but the poor sod very nearly drowned.
‘I’m not sure which of Saracens two Schalks is the more laid back,’ says the Burger Version. ’Perhaps we should have a Schalk-off ten minutes before a game and see who wins. I think he’s a bit more energetic – he talks more and he pranks more – whereas I just sit there eating sweets and chatting to the people around me. I just try not to get in anyone’s way because everyone has his own ritual. All that matters is that when we cross the white line, we’re all ready.’
The good news this past fortnight is that the family’s finally arrived – wife Michele and his two young sons – and they’ve settled in as seamlessly as he did. ‘It’s great to go home and actually feel as though I’m at home,’ he says. ‘For the first two months it was a bit like digs at university, you know, a couch, a TV and a week’s washing in the corner. And then there were all the ‘IKEA’ deliveries, so a day out was taking all the empty cardboard boxes to the skip.’
For the moment he has a floating role at Saracens, best epitomised by his ‘hot seat’ policy on away trips, a new venture for someone who – if you’re talking an evening on the M5 on the way back from Exeter – is essentially a back seat sort of boy. The truly great players do this, though. When George Smith first arrived at Wasps, he and his Oyster Card used to come to training on the bus and sit on the top deck with a few of the Academy lads so it was in that very vein that Schalk Burger grabbed Jack Nay the other day – Jack’s a nineteen–year-old flanker at the club who’s just been selected for the England U20s squad – and took him out for dinner.
‘He didn’t say too much to begin with,’ says Burger, ‘but by the time we got to the ice cream he was firing questions right, left and centre. I suppose I can offer some experience to point the younger players in the right direction and I enjoy doing that but every player – however young or old – has to work it out for himself at some stage.‘
Burger – for all his green blood – could clearly do England a turn here. He and Eddie Jones go back a few years – they shared a couple of glasses of red wine when they last met up in Tokyo – and while Schalk wouldn’t dream of sitting down and ‘schooling’ the likes of Maro Itoje on Eddie’s behalf, there are conversations over a coffee, during a tedious road trip or even after a shower where what taxi-drivers call ‘The Knowledge’ tends to get passed on.
‘I wouldn’t want to instruct anybody in anything,’ says Schalk. ‘That’s just not how it works. And while I’m always happy to chat, there’s not much to say given the quality of the players here. To be honest, it’s refreshing to focus a bit more on your own game without having to worry about other dynamics in the team. Yes, I do have a leadership role but it’s very understated. Besides, Eddie hasn’t phoned me yet. Maybe he’s waiting until after the ‘Boks have beaten him at Twickenham.’
His father was himself a Springbok, another Schalk Burger, or to be more accurate, another Schalk Willem Petrus Burger. This is a family as traditional as their ‘Welbedacht’ wine, the grape from the Cape that they produce at their Wellington vineyard just north of Paarl.
‘I think the name runs through six generations in all,’ says the man who’s – technically – Schalk Willem Petrus Burger V, ‘all of us with exactly the same four names. At least that’s according to my old man, so we just have to trust him on that one. So he’s Schalk Willem Petrus Burger, so am I, and so’s my eldest son. It does sound confusing, I suppose, but it make life simple for the females in the house at Christmas because they shout one name and three come running.’
If Saracens feel they’re lucky to have him then so too does his family. Three years ago he went in to hospital to have a cyst removed – it was pressing on his spinal cord and giving him no end of gyp – and he caught bacterial meningitis. For a while he was – literally – dying with his eyes open.
‘On about the third day Michele rang my family and friends and told them to come and say goodbye because it looked as though I was on my way out,’ he recalls. ‘And I was conscious of it. I was literally just fighting from heartbeat to heartbeat and every heartbeat felt like someone was jabbing a knife between my eyes. There are times when you sense you’re slipping away and you feel like letting go but I was angry so I started fighting again. I think a lot of my motivation was driven by anger. I was just married, I had a three-month-old son and I was thinking about losing them and missing out on all that. It was scary.’
In all he was in hospital for four months and convalescing for a further five during which time he lost thirty kilos. Miracles are best left to God but his recovery was remarkable and – not surprisingly – a humbling experience.
‘Look, you shouldn’t need to go through something as horrific as that to have a sense of perspective,’ he says. ‘But it was instructive. You think you’re indestructible – particularly if you’re a sportsman or an athlete – and of course you’re not and discovering that you’re not is good for you. You know, I’m just the next bloke trying hard to be the best bloke I can be and I’m mortal. And perhaps I’m a little more relaxed now than I once was.’
Certainly he’s reveling in the English experience, not least the Champions’ Cup which last week gave him his first taste of Toulon and a chance to have a coffee and a crepe with Messers. Habana and Vermulen. Winning the game helped too, despite picking up a seventy-second minute sin bin as Saracens fought tooth and nail to hang on. ‘I thought I’d cost us the game there for a moment,’ he says, ‘but the team actually went better with fourteen on the pitch and me in the bin.’
He hasn’t formally retired from international rugby but if you were a betting man you’d sense that the – distinguished – green part of his career is over. Certainly for now the focus is entirely on Saracens, the only trouble with joining a club that’s just won an unprecedented double being that if they don’t repeat the feat, it’ll be his fault. He is aware of the potential predicament.
‘Look, from a personal point of view just winning one trophy would be great. Obviously things will get a little tighter the further we progress but let’s see. At the Stormers no one was better than us at getting to semi-finals and no one was better than us at losing them. So I’m not getting ahead of myself.’
Beyond the gum-shield, who knows? He has an instinct and a passion for the sport that would seem to be insatiable but, then again, maybe the vineyard at Schalk Burger and Sons – make that Schalk Willem Petrus Burger and Sons – will be where he ends up. ‘Yes, well, I’m not too sure about that,’ he says. ‘I’m probably better at drinking the wine than I would be at making it. Let’s see how things go.’
20 OCTOBER 2016