Burger out to avenge the Lions

First hand memories of the 1997 Lions' victory have given Springbok enforcer Schalk Burger all the motivation he needs to make sure his side avenge that series defeat
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The Independent Online

When Ian McGeechan's British and Irish Lions defeated South Africa 25-16 in the opening Test in Johannesburg 12 years ago, a young blond-haired boy was in the crowd cheering for the Springboks - and he has been dreaming of making amends for the loss ever since.

Schalk Burger was 14 years old on that day in Cape Town's Newlands stadium when he watched, along with his former Test-playing father of the same name, Matt Dawson and Alan Tait cross for the Martin Johnson-led tourists, while Neil Jenkins slotted five penalties.

A week later, at the Kings Park Stadium in Durban, Jeremy Guscott's late drop goal secured a 18-15 win for McGeechan's team and clinched the Lions' first series in South Africa since Willie John McBride and his team-mates managed it in 1974.

Before then, you have to jump back to 1896 to find the Lions' previous series victory. That's how rare success is in South Africa for touring teams.

That the Boks lost the series in 1997 broke young Schalk's heart - and the flank forward, who has now represented his country 49 times, knows that the upcoming series will be the only chance he will have to put things right.

"I was a youngster but I was very aware of how big it was when the Lions came in 1997," says Burger, whose father played for the Boks as a lock in the 1980s. "I was at Newlands when we lost the first Test and I was pretty well informed about what happened that time.

"The Lions tour only comes to us about once every 12 years, so it is very special. It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and something we all want to be a part of. I will never get a chance to be part of it again - we only get one shot at it and hopefully we can make it and avenge the result for the boys who lost in 1997.

"It is going to be a good Test series but it is going to be completely different to anything else we have done before. I'm expecting it to be a tough tour. I'm really looking forward to it and it has been something I have always dreamed about."

Burger turned 26 in April and is confident that the world champions can overpower McGeechan's team in the three-Test series in June and July - games that the Wasps director of rugby expects to have the same intensity as "a World Cup final".

The man named the International Rugby Board's World Player of the Year in 2004 knows all about what that involves, however, having helped South Africa to defeat England 15-6 at the Stade de France to claim his country's second World Cup title back in October 2007.

And he believes that the Boks' whitewash of the Home Nations last autumn - a tour that included a record 42-6 defeat of Martin Johnson's England at Twickenham - bodes well for taming the Lions.

Port Elizabeth-born Burger, famed for his dynamic and indefatigable backrow play and his trademark flash of blond hair, which has now been chopped off, stormed on to the international scene back in 2003 as a wide-eyed 20-year-old, after starring for the young Springbok side that won the Under-21 World Cup in 2002.

The 6ft 4in Stormers and Western Province flanker made his full debut against Georgia in the World Cup in Australia and is now regarded as one of the most formidable figures in world rugby.

After South Africa's busy 2008 - a year that included three Tests against Wales and Italy and a punishing schedule in the Tri-Nations before the tour of the Northern Hemisphere which ended in November - Burger spent Christmas "drinking white wine and beer, and eating crayfish on the beach".

Having relaxed and recharged, Burger is now raring to continue where the Boks left off last year - with that record defeat over England in London, and with a team spirit which was resembling that felt in France a year earlier.

Though he figures that Northern Hemisphere teams do not produce enough young stars because foreigners block their path, Burger concedes that he would like to play in the Guinness Premiership.

He continues: "I'll play in South Africa as long as I enjoy it, but you can never rule out moving overseas - it is part and parcel of rugby nowadays. I would love to one day go to England and play a few seasons and experience a different culture."

On last year he adds: "South Africa had a pretty good tour against the Northern Hemisphere teams. In fact all the Southern Hemisphere teams did pretty well on their autumn tours. Australia lost against Wales in their final game but we did well to win the Grand Slam.

"At first we didn't play very well against Wales in Cardiff - we had a good first 40 but a poor second half. Against Scotland we really struggled. So in the final Test match, against England, all the boys were really up for it. We put in a very good performance so that was pleasing and we have good memories."

And now Burger can't wait to don the green and gold again and prepare to face the Lions.

"The next time we play together as Boks will be against the best of the British teams, the Lions, and I can't wait," he says.

"I think we can really build on the team spirit we had on tour at the end of the year. Whenever the team are playing well the team spirit is good. We went thorough a stage in the Tri-Nations when we struggled. But we pulled together for a week and we did really well against Australia - that was probably the closest feeling we had to the World Cup.

"Obviously there were different circumstances but we really cracked it and there was a special feeling in the team."

Burger adds: "Let's hope we can find that feeling again against the Lions. It should be fun."