Cape Town - In an exclusive interview, Schalk Burger snr talks about the worrying state of South African rugby, his son’s 18-year playing career and assesses the Springboks’ chances on their antipodean sojourn.
Sport24 asked: Your assessment of South Africa’s defeat in Mendoza?
Schalk Burger: Any team can have an off day and lose, but what’s concerning is the way in which we are losing. South Africa’s defence against Argentina was abysmal. It’s wasn’t just about missing tackles, but where the players were in relation to the ball-carrier. There is also nobody taking leadership and I have never seen three Springboks loose forwards so out of the game for that period of time. If our tight forwards are not dominating, then our backs are not going to get over the advantage line. At present, it’s very easy to defend against the Springboks because the player receiving the ball is already moving in a direction, so you just stay on his inside. The closest game to rugby is chess, but where are the Boks on the board? I just don’t see any strategy from them and how we are going to implement a game plan which will allow us to win the Rugby World Cup. As South African’s we don’t just want to compete at the tournament, we want to win the trophy. However, the Springboks’ current game plan is neither a winning one nor do the current playing personnel boast the necessary skills to execute said strategy. Test rugby is about all winning and that is how you want to be remembered. However, it looks like our players are just racking up Test caps and money. We have forgotten how to win Tests matches. For argument’s sake, we don’t take our penalties, produce chip kicks in our own 22 and concede ball possession. I also don’t see the Springbok players really being disheartened by defeat. To them, it’s just another match. Post-game they will say: “Coach, we played like you said we should,” instead of saying, “we don’t agree with the pattern we played”. If rugby is not a debate anymore, I’m a firm believer that it will have no future.
Sport24 asked: What advice would you like to offer Rassie Erasmus?
Schalk Burger: The big thing I would say to Rassie is stop talking because he is forever in the media. He should get out of the press and get stuff done. Moreover, it’s nonsense that he is both Springbok coach and director of rugby. The one is an on-field job and the other is an off-field role. There is a conflict of interest, like the whole of SA Rugby for that matter... Rassie is starting to get into an area where many previous Springbok coaches failed - from Nick Mallett onwards. When you start taking off-field issues onto the field, you begin picking up problems with players. I believe the Springboks should have a manager and a coach. The coach would handle the on-field duties and the manager off-field issues. The team needs a manager to take care of the often aggressive relationship with the media and politicians, so that the national coach doesn’t encumber himself with those simple issues.
Sport24 asked: What do you make of SA Rugby’s financial turmoil?
Schalk Burger: Making a loss on over a R1 billion turnover is just bad management and that is where all the problems started. We are so arrogant with regards to our decision-making, yet SA Rugby cry like babies about the net loss of R33 million they suffered in 2017. (Furthermore, the SA Rugby Group, which includes the governing body's subsidiaries, suffered a net loss of R62 million). I feel the financial losses are only going to get worse because they aren’t going to lay off any jobs at their ivory tower. SA Rugby is technically bankrupt, so how could they go and spend R144 million on the Cheetahs and Kings to compete in the PRO14 and then subtract that money from the unions that most need it for development? How can you ever take a decision like that? The incumbents have to be held accountable for the loss in revenue and what they have done to local competitions. One thousand people watching Western Province in a Currie Cup match is ridiculous. Never in the history of rugby has South Africa had such a diabolical competition structure as this year. The powers that be keep blaming it on money issues, but they haven’t done the marketing and all the right things. The administrators at SA Rugby aren’t politicians and are appointed to look after the sport. Who is leading South African rugby and where are we going? Top South African players aren’t only leaving for an improved paycheck abroad (there are approximately 350 South African rugby players overseas) they are also 'gatvol' of the management, who I believe have missed every rule in the book. Everything points back to SA rugby, but who has ever had the guts to stand up to them and say: “Listen, for the sake of the game the whole SA Rugby executive should resign.” On behalf of every person that loves rugby as much as I do, they should all resign because if you look at their record over the last three years it’s been abysmal. To me it’s about rugby, but to them it’s self-enrichment.
Sport24 asked: Your view on the awkward faux pas from Francois Davids?
Schalk Burger: Rugby has high aspirational values and young people what to play the game and emulate their heroes. However, picture this scenario for a moment: They are at Craven Week and hear a cringe-worthy welcome speech delivered by the deputy president of SA Rugby. It was scandalous. He stumbled through his speech, congratulated the Springboks for their series win over Ireland (rather than England) in June and referred to the ‘SABC’ Sevens Series rather than HSBC. If that is the example being set for the future of rugby, then we are in crisis. Is that how you want kids to remember rugby and the SA Rugby board? Was Davids set up to do it or was he just that bad? When the deputy president delivers such a speech, what parent would want their kid to play rugby?
Sport24 asked: What are you most proud of in terms of your son’s career?
Schalk Burger: Schalk has won massive awards - he is still the youngest guy ever to win World Rugby Player of the Year and is the only rugby player to have won Laureus World Comeback of the Year. However, his character and the way he has handled himself in the game is more important to me. What matters is that Schalk is a wonderful human being and money and fame haven’t gone to his head. Sport has been part of his education in life and, after 18 years, he is still living the game and making a big contribution. (Burger is into the second year of a two-year deal with Saracens). He is enjoying his time at Saracens tremendously and he likes an environment in which he can contribute and put his vision of the game into place. One thing about Schalk is that wherever he has gone in his career, he has made a significant contribution both on-field and off. He has played in four Rugby World Cups and is the South African, who has played the most World Cup matches - 20. He still has a role to play within SA rugby (Burger has earned 86 Test caps for the Springboks) but how, when and where is undecided. At his age (35) he has seen everything, so sometimes you become gun-shy to get involved. I don’t think Schalk will play in South Africa again, but it’s up to him. I’ve always said to him that you don’t retire one year in advance, but rather wake up one morning and you know that ‘this is it’. Being a creative and spontaneous person, that is probably what will happen with him.
Sport24 asked: As a former Bok lock, your thoughts on the current crop?
Schalk Burger: I don’t think the current Springbok locks are doing what they should be doing. Bakkies Botha and I were chatting about the subject the other day. We have got locks that are trying to be wings or centres or something. With the size of our players, why aren’t they hitting rucks and mauls and hurting the opposition? You just have to go and look at the All Blacks’ locks and their contributions in the tight-phases. As a lock, you are not really there to carry the ball. The question we should rather be asking is: How many tackles are our locks making over the advantage line? Our forwards don’t like to tackle over the advantage line because that is where you get injured. However, as a forward you have to hit rucks and mauls and shift the contact point. The Springboks are too lateral and every contact point is static. I’m not saying our locks haven’t got talent, but it’s about how they apply it that is important. At the moment, I don’t think they are doing that correctly.
Sport24 asked: Your outlook ahead of the two-match tour to Australasia?
Schalk Burger: When you have lost a game that you should have won, you are already on the back foot. I didn’t see any natural leaders in the Springbok side standing up and I wonder how the team spirit is going to be. It’s never easy touring Australia and New Zealand. Forget on the field for a moment because it’s off-field where you spend most of your time. The media and supporters in Australasia attack you. It’s the off-field antics that get into your mind and don’t allow you to be as positive as you should be. Rugby is a proactive rather than reactive game and there is advantage for the attacker and the team taking the game to the opposition. But, once you get on the back foot off the field, you take that onto the field. To keep the team positive, you require strong individuals and unfortunately I don’t see any in the current Springbok side. When I played the game, we always used to be ahead of the rest of the world from a strategic point of view. Big teams used to travel to South Africa and we used to beat them because we outwitted them off the field. Nowadays, what I’m seeing more and more of is just taking a game plan, putting players in and hoping that we win. In contrast, the New Zealand teams annihilated everybody else in Super Rugby and the All Blacks are out ahead of the rest because they are on another level in terms of playing and overall competence.