Burger with relish the fresh face of formidable Boks

South Africa are on a long march to 2007 with a young blond bombshell very much to the fore.
Click to follow
The Independent Online

A pair of yellow boxing gloves hang on the wall in Schalk Burger's bedroom. They are there as a daily reminder of the barbaric "Kamp Staaldraad", that pre-2003 World Cup camp used by the then Springbok coach Rudolf Straeuli as a bonding exercise but which only served to repulse the nation and torment those who were there.

A pair of yellow boxing gloves hang on the wall in Schalk Burger's bedroom. They are there as a daily reminder of the barbaric "Kamp Staaldraad", that pre-2003 World Cup camp used by the then Springbok coach Rudolf Straeuli as a bonding exercise but which only served to repulse the nation and torment those who were there.

"Nothing has changed as to how I feel about it, both as a South African and as a parent," says Burger's father, Schalk Snr. "I was embarrassed for those boys. No person should be degraded in that way. Those pictures of them huddled naked in a pit are haunting." At the camp, players were forced - at gunpoint - to strip to the flesh in sub-zero temperatures, to blow up rugby balls underwater, to sleep in the bush, and to punch their team-mates black and blue.

The physical marks have healed, but the mental scars remain. "They put Schalkie up against one of the senior guys," Burger Snr says of his 21-year-old son's ordeal. "I believe it was a war. You don't achieve anything by doing this. He was the young one. What could he have taken from it? You don't build spirit like that. He still hasn't talked to me about it at length - but he will when the time is right."

Burger was then an uncapped Springbok, but today prepares for a daunting grand slam tour as quite possibly the next big thing in world rugby. Bleach-blond, 6ft 4in and over 16 stone of chiselled South African beef, he looks born for the modern game.

Few back-rowers (he plays flank but is equally at home at No 8) have arrived on the global stage with such impact. His Test debut was against Georgia at last year's World Cup but it is under the tutelage of the new coach, Jake White, that he has thrived, taking his caps tally to 11; yet he is still a greenhorn. Man of the series in the two home Test victories over Ireland, he helped win the Tri-Nations with barnstorming displays of perpetual motion. Tomorrow he looks certain to be named South African player of the year, with further international honours on the horizon.

Pronounced "Skulk", he has quickly been nicknamed "The Incredible", though "Tow-truck" (as in first to the breakdown) also tells a story. Reared in a sporting family (dad was a Springbok lock), his other love is cricket (he bats left-handed and bowls right) and he is also a keen fisherman. Golf is another recreation he excels in, and last December he played a round with Ernie Els, who told him: "If anything like Kamp Staaldraad happens again, let me know and I'll send my plane to fly you all out of there".

At first glance Burger could pass for just another knock-kneed, playful, strapping South African youngster, brought up in a loving family and who still lives at home with his parents and his brother and sister outside Cape Town. But underneath the fun-loving exterior is the steely mindset of a competitor - and a winner at that.

Burger is one of those Springboks who can ill-afford a slump in form as the tourists undertake a formid-able challenge - away Tests against Wales, Ireland, England, Scotland and Argentina in successive weeks, starting on Saturday - at the end of a long season. In his squad of 33, White has selected 11 players of colour for the first time in the country's history, though the nucleus who lifted the Tri-Nations are likely to be retained for as long as the Elastoplast holds them together. They travel without four of their top five scrum-halves, all injured.

Two years ago, the Boks came to Twickenham and suffered their worst defeat in history, 53-3, leaving in disgrace after a crude encounter. Confirmation that such roughhouse tactics have been discarded for the good of their game hangs on Schalk Burger's bedroom wall.

However, these South Africans are no shrinking violets, particularly in the pack, where the veteran prop Os du Randt has been outstanding, as have locks Bakkies Botha and Victor Matfield. Not to mention the exciting young back row of Burger, Juan Smith and "Big" Joe van Niekerk.

Some of the tackles the trio made during this year's Tri-Nations looked and sounded like mini car crashes, which gave the largely strait-jacketed backs enough turnover ball to open up the game. Those backs include Newport's Percy Montgomery at No 15, with former Leicester inmate Jaco van der Westhuyzen entrusted to provide the vision at fly-half.

What the Springboks do lack is a reliable goalkicker, but whichever of the five Tests are won will be done so with a running game, weather permitting. However, for South Africa, this tour is more about putting down foundations for the 2007 World Cup, where they will again face England in the group stages. At which point Schalk Burger will be just 24. And a graduate from the school of hard knocks.

Comments