Cape Town - In an exclusive interview, ex-Springbok flanker SCHALK BURGER talks about contentious refereeing at the World Cup, South Africa versus Italy on Friday and introducing Roger Federer to Prime Circle.
Sport24 asked: How are you enjoying your sabbatical back in South Africa?
Schalk Burger: It’s lovely being back in Cape Town. I returned to the Mother City from London with my wife Michelle and my two sons in mid-June. The boys returned speaking the Queen’s English, so we only talk Afrikaans to them at home. On the work front, I have taken a role with SuperSport and I’m doing some TV punditry on weekends. Other than that, I’m trying to work on my golf handicap. I shot a good round last Friday in Johannesburg and have been cut from an 8 to a 6.7 handicap index… My professional rugby playing career is definitely done and dusted. You might also find me playing a bit of touch rugby, five-a-side football or mountain biking here or there, but I’m quite happy with my decision. I think it’s best described as the software still being intact but the hardware having expired.
Sport24 asked: How would you reflect upon your 17-year playing career?
Schalk Burger: You obviously win a few things over the course of your career and it’s nice to gain acknowledgment and recognition for the amount of hard work and determination you put into it. I love the sport, the values of the game of rugby and I try to live by those. This is the first time I’m able to reflect on my career and think, “Jeez, to win World Rugby Player of the year at the age of 21 was pretty awesome.” I still remember attending the 2003 awards ceremony where I was nominated for Under-21 Player of the year. Jonny Wilkinson won Player of the Year then and I was sitting there and thinking to myself, “One day I’d like to get that.” I never thought that a year later it would be me following up after Jonny. I enjoyed some other crazy achievements (Burger won the 2007 Rugby World Cup and holds the record as the Springbok to have played the most World Cup games – 20) but those come along. First and foremost, it was about me enjoying my rugby and luckily I did. At the end of the day, the big thing is the type of person you are. In any professional career, it’s quite easy to get ahead of yourself, but you have to stay true to yourself. I tried to keep it simple really and I have never been one to overthink. I was privileged to wear the Springbok jersey as many as 86 times. You never start out a career thinking you are going to get to 50 Test matches and, at one stage, I looked pretty certain to get to 100 and then had a wobble between 2011 and 2014. You come back after a break like that and appreciate the jersey. When you get handed your first cap, one of the big questions all of us are asked is: Are you going to be a Springbok or a great Springbok? We all know we are there on borrowed time and are a custodian of the jersey for a certain amount of time. For me, the important thing was to try leave the jersey in a better spot than what I found it in.
Sport24 asked: How do you rate South Africa’s Rugby World Cup chances?
Schalk Burger: The current crop of players had the perfect build-up and everyone knows their role in the group. To be honest we have been telling our story for 12 years, so it’s time for a new story. Hopefully the class of 2019 can win it and then there is a new narrative. But, in saying that, it’s going to be tough. It’s not easy and it’s about the team that can best keep their cool under the highest of pressures... There are many factors that have led to the Springboks’ turnaround in fortunes. I like the way the current team is playing and there seems to be a minimum standard required to be a Bok, which is nice to see. There is a unique culture to the current Bok team. Moreover, there is work-rate, tenacity and fight. Rassie Erasmus took over the team on his terms, whereas everything Allister Coetzee had was compromised. It was hard for Allister and he sort of took the job without really putting anything in place. And before he knew it, the first Test match was on his your doorstep without having sorted out the culture or having experienced players around. We had a vast amount of us (senior players) leave after the 2015 World Cup. It was always going to be a tough time to be a Springbok coach and it will be no different come 2020 because many players will be leaving our shores to ply their trade abroad. It was tough for Allister but Rassie has turned it around and this year has been amazing... The Springbok World Cup campaign has been okay so far. There was not a lot in the first pool fixture against the All Blacks. Much was made of referee Jerome Garces’ officiating. He took some of South Africa’s strengths away – especially come scrum-time – which was hard for us as we didn’t get any reward. However, the All Blacks’ kicking game was better and the Springboks got caught out in the backfield. In addition, because we didn’t get our maul going we didn’t kick on our terms, which resulted in some aimless kicking at times. At lineout time, the All Blacks sacked the Boks straight off the back and our driving maul also didn’t have much. If anything, the opening defeat in Yokohama was a bit of a wake-up call to the squad to say, “Hold on, there is more in us”. Our game managers and leaders need to make quicker decisions and think on their feet.
Sport24 asked: Could the loss against the All Blacks prove a blessing in disguise?
Schalk Burger: If the Boks had got away with the All Blacks result they may not have addressed certain areas, which they got caught out in. When you get to a quarter-final under higher pressure, as team leaders or a captain, you may be just a step behind in reacting to what might come. Us losing to Japan in 2015 allowed us to come third because we addressed our issues right there and then. Whereas, if we had got away with a result against Japan we would probably have fallen short because we wouldn’t have addressed issues that needed to be. All-in-all, the opening defeat to the All Blacks was not a train smash for the Boks. We were a little disappointed in the performance and afterwards we all felt deflated, but it may be a good thing for us come quarterfinals and semi-finals.
Sport24 asked: What do you make of the sub-standard World Cup refereeing?
Schalk Burger: The contentious issue has been refereeing throughout this World Cup. There are so many games where the result lies with a refereeing decision, which is unfortunate. I feel you want to move away from that. It’s a hard job and they’re going to make mistakes. Your mindset as a team has to be that you are bigger than the referee. Refereeing decisions are one of the uncontrollables and you have to carry on doing your thing. It’s not always easy to get that mindset right but, as soon as the referee becomes a focal point, as a team you lose the plot and energy which you should be spending playing rugby from whistle to whistle. The players have to adapt and push the boundaries. When I was playing, I always tried to push the boundaries early on to know where I fitted in and ascertain what was allowed and what was not. I used to do that to gauge where I was at and then I either dialled it back or pushed it further. As the competition goes on, influencing the referee at key times is going to be very important. In the pool opener in Yokohama, Kieran Read said the referee was “pretty gutless” in not showing Makazole Mapimpi a yellow card in the first half for what he felt was a professional foul. It may have been the wrong terminology, but it definitely put some pressure on Garces. There are going to be big moments like that and it’s about managing the referees. The difficult thing with the French referees, of whom Romain Poite is probably the best communicator, is that we don’t want to be coached as players. We don’t want to see players coached to get out of a ruck or roll away, but you do want to know what’s happening – when the ball is out, when it’s a ruck or when it’s a maul. The difficulty with Garces in the first game was how quiet he was. There were a few times when he put his hands up like nothing was wrong and then he penalises you straight over.
Sport24 asked: Is the risk starting to outweigh the reward in the oval game?
Schalk Burger: No. Rugby is a dangerous game, but I will still encourage my young sons to take up the sport. Rugby is a contact sport and collisions happen. It’s a hard and physical game and at World Cups there is even more intensity. Players run harder, faster and there is more desperation than at any other time. As a player, you definitely have to be aware where you make contact. If your initial contact is high, you are in bad position anyway and are in trouble. However, if your initial contact is low and post that there is a bit of a ride up, you should generally be fine. For me, the most difficult one is if you are that adjuster defender and the player inside you makes a leg chop – low tackle – and the guy is on his way down. Where do you go if you are already committed to the tackle? It’s very likely that your forearm or shoulder is going to hit him in the head. Even more dangerous than the tackle area is the breakdown. The breakdown is a free shot to hurt someone. You are in such a compromised position and you know you have to clean someone out as the fetcher or ball pilferer.
Sport24 asked: Your outlook ahead of the Pool B clash against Italy on Friday?
Schalk Burger: We are looking for a rousing Springbok performance against Italy. We want something to feel positive about. There is an opportunity to really lay down a marker and make a statement. Reading between the lines, I think Rassie is expecting his team to have a massive game on Friday and the public is waiting for the men in green and gold to produce a big performance. It’s about building from this point and getting our World Cup properly on track. I think the Italians are going to keep the Springboks busy and they are most definitely not a poor side. They haven’t been good in the Six Nations, and have hardly had any results, but this is a once-off World Cup game. They beat us three years ago in Florence, which obviously wasn’t a great result. However, I can’t see us having too many issues with them. In saying that, I don’t think we can expect a walkover and they will prove competitive. The biggest gap in the modern game between tier-one and tier-two teams is at set-piece. Italy’s set-piece will be better than Namibia’s and the Springboks will have to play some decent rugby in order to prevail. I want to see work-rate, tenacity and competitiveness from the Boks.
Sport24 asked: Three dream dinner guests, who would they be and why?
Schalk Burger: I would invite Ernie Els. He used to be a childhood hero of mine and we have become very good mates. We’ve shared many bottles of wine and rounds of golf together. I would also like to spend some time with Roger Federer. He has kept it together for so long and I would like to pick his brain about sport in general. I would give him a glass or two of champagne and see if he lets his hair down. He might also have to teach me how to hit the topspin backhand! In terms of food, I have a pizza oven at home, so could serve my guests pizza or a braai. Since I’ve been back, I’ve been braaing three times a week and lighting the pizza oven up every other week. When it comes to music, I enjoy rock and there has to be some instruments in the mix. I love guitar and play a bit. My brother-in-law is the bass guitarist for Prime Circle and could provide the evening’s entertainment.