Schalk Burger is rugby royalty in these parts. There is a buzz among hotel staff when he arrives for a chat and obligingly poses for pictures. Retirement has not reduced his profile or popularity.
The former Springbok icon and World Cup-winner is 38 and savouring his new life as an ex-player, having left Saracens and returned home two years ago. Burger is busy, providing punditry for SuperSport and expanding his online chat show ‘Use It Or Lose IT’ with former team-mate Jean de Villiers. ‘We were bored in lockdown so we started interviewing our mates, basically,’ he jokes.
As a proud Capetonian, he is relishing the stockpile of marquee fixtures taking place in his home city. Three days ago, South Africa ‘A’ – a national team in disguise – beat the Lions 17-13. Today, the Stormers will seek to blow the tourists further off course, before all three Tests are due to take place here, in the shadow of Table Mountain.
Schalk Burger is a Springbok icon for his role in South Africa’s 2007 World Cup win
Burger made headlines for the wrong reasons by gouging Luke Fitzgerald in the eye in 2009
Burger has a fascinating insight, having represented this province for many years and been part of a South Africa team which conquered the Lions, to embellish their charge to global glory two years earlier. His time at Saracens provided a close-up view of the game in Britain and Ireland, and the talent and character of men such as Owen Farrell and Maro Itoje.
Warren Gatland is here on a mission to make amends for the 2009 series, when he was forwards coach and the Lions lost 2-1 to the Boks. From a British and Irish perspective, it was an agonising demise. For Burger, it was a bitter-sweet episode, as his involvement was controversially curtailed.
He recovered from injury in time for the second Test in Pretoria, only to be sin-binned in the opening minute for gouging Ireland wing Luke Fitzgerald. While the hosts snatched the victory to clinch the series, Burger was banned for eight weeks.
‘We won the Test series but obviously, for me, it was over-shadowed by eye-gouging Luke Fitzgerald in my 50th Test match,’ he told Sportsmail. ‘You get things wrong. Never in the world would I go out to eye-gouge somebody. I’m a relaxed bloke. I was relaxed before the Test match but when I ran out, I switched it on. That’s how I approached every game but maybe, sub-consciously, I over-hyped it. You make mistakes and learn from them. It’s 12 years ago now. Everyone asks me about it still!
‘Even though I was playing in my 50th Test match, I was 26 – I was still young. At 26, all of us are still learning, aren’t we? It was nothing against Luke Fitzgerald. He’s a good bloke. I probably played a few games against him afterwards. It was just one of those things that happens. By the time you realise you’ve done it, it is too late. It has already occurred.
‘You go back over it in your head and start thinking, “Was I over-hyped?”. Maybe, but not really. It was a big game, you don’t get to play against the Lions very often and you want to make an impression. Obviously I just made the wrong impression. But you can’t regret these things.’
‘If we dominate the scrum, the Lions will be struggling,’ Burger said ahead of the three Tests
The Lions were incensed that Burger was not sent off and he admits that they had a point. ‘They were saying it should have been a red card and it probably should have,’ he added. ‘Now, it would be a straight red.’ He is also honest enough to accept that if he had been dismissed, the result would most likely have been different. But there was aggressive intent on both sides that day.
‘There was a lot of hype in the build-up,’ he said. ‘Everyone was up for that second Test. I think the Lions were disappointed with their lack of physical intent in the first Test, so in the second Test they were a different animal. They matched us physically and that is why it was such an epic. Obviously I added to the drama, but there was a lot of feeling in that match.’
That incident was a blemish in an otherwise glittering career. Burger was a successful Springbok, a world champion, a World Player of the Year, a European champion. But the gold-plated CV does not include titles with his province. The Stormers have vast potential and in 2015, Eddie Jones was hired to help them fulfil it. It was a recruitment coup for the Western Province union, but his tenure lasted just eight days, before the RFU came to Cape Town and poached him for England.
Recalling the saga, Burger said: ‘I came back from the 2015 World Cup, had one day in Cape Town to pick up my family, then I was off to Japan to do my second season there. I had lunch with Eddie, at Mamma Roma in Dean Street arcade. He was drinking a water and I said, “I hope you don’t mind me drinking a few beers because this is my one and only afternoon off!”.
‘At that stage, Eddie was fully committed to the Stormers. The next day, I took a flight via Dubai to Tokyo. When I switched my South African phone back on, a long message came through from Eddie saying, “Sorry mate, I’ve got the opportunity of a lifetime to coach England so I have to go”.
‘All of us were excited about Eddie working here. For the people who had made that commitment to get Eddie, it was a hard pill to swallow because we’d got a great coach. At the time – and still now – he was one of the best in the world. After the 2015 World Cup he was held in such high regard, so to snag him for us here was an amazing catch. I was disappointed because we could have done so much under Eddie. He would have done so much to mature our younger generation.
‘It was unfortunate but these things happen. I think my reply to him was, “You’ve got an amazing opportunity, go for it. It’s a sleeping giant you are taking over, you can’t really stuff it up!”. England were ready for a turn-around and Eddie has done a great job there.’
Burger’s club career ended in difficult circumstances after Saracens’ salary cap scandal
The English revival was built around a core of Saracens players and Burger became their team-mate during a three-year stint at the north London club which brought domestic and European titles. But his time there ended as the salary cap scandal exposed by Sportsmail was erupting and he has been saddened by the fall-out; relegation from the Premiership and the departure of many players.
‘We got some things wrong,’ said Burger. ‘Nigel (Wray, ex-chairman) has borne the brunt of it and that is sad because he’s a good man. It’s sad to see his legacy tarnished.
‘A lot of players who played there for a long time had their careers cut short there. Most foreigners were on the chopping block after the whole ordeal. It was a sad end to it, but you have to respect what we were found guilty of.
‘As an ex-player, I still feel part of it and feel sorry for everyone who has gone through that, but you can see the other clubs’ view as well. If I was at Exeter, for example, I would see their point. But what Saracens have done is produce a lot of phenomenal rugby players through their academy and that’s where the focus should lie. It will be nice to see them back in the Premiership again.’
Before that, there is a Lions series looming. Like everyone else, Burger is unsure how it will unfold due to a lack of meaningful evidence, as the touring team is taking shape and the Springboks have barely played since the World Cup. A reshuffled South Africa ‘A’ side will face the Bulls today, hours before the Stormers-Lions game, but that is a means of assessing fringe candidates.
Burger fears that the chronic lack of game-time together will be a problem for the hosts, saying: ‘I don’t doubt that the Boks will be super-competitive, but I’m scared for them not being Test match savvy and sharp when the pressure comes on.’ His other concern is that South Africa will sorely miss their experienced, talismanic No 8, Duane Vermeulen, who is injured and unavailable. But the Boks’ set-piece prowess gives him hope.
‘Not a lot has been said in the build-up about the scrum and, for me; that is going to be the main area of contention either way,’ he said. ‘If we dominate the scrum, the Lions will be struggling. We have two phenomenal front rows and the scrum is such a big part of the Boks’ psyche. They will be patient. Even if it takes 60 or 70 minutes to gain that ascendancy, they will be going for it.’
He is a good-natured character so the warning comes with a smile, but it sounds ominous for the Lions.