Cape Town – How many more weeks it may stretch out for depends on how competitive the Stormers are in the knockout phase of Vodacom Super Rugby 2016.
But regardless of how that turns out for the franchise, the end of a particularly illustrious, lengthy era draws ever closer as Schalk Burger, 33, winds up some 14 years of first-class activity at Newlands.
Among those reasonably rare “one province men” in the South African landscape, the stubbornly durable Springbok loose forward – who would probably have used up some seven lives if he possessed a cat’s proverbial nine -- leaves later this year for a swansong, two-year stint with champions Saracens in the English Premiership.
Here is our full Sport24 Q ‘n A with Burger, who made his Currie Cup debut for Western Province in 2003 and kicked off a Super Rugby career in 2004 which has since brought him well over 100 appearances …
Can you remember your Super Rugby debut, back in 2004?
It was a start against the Waratahs here at Newlands. I’d come back from the World Cup the previous year with an injury so I missed the beginning of (what was then) the Super 12. I remember after a few weeks, when fit again, Gert Smal came to me and said I needed to come into the XV because of injuries to one or two other guys. We’d been having a decent season at that stage. I was put in a loose trio that would have been with captain Corne Krige and either Hendrik Gerber or, if he was injured, Adri Badenhorst. I think I played on the blindside, so maybe Adri was at eight, a good linking guy and our ‘Kalahari Ferrari’ … we got a quite comfortable win I seem to remember (the score was 27-23 – Sport24) against a strong ‘Tahs side.
You advanced to the semis, where you lost in Christchurch to the Crusaders …
Yes, we had a good round-robin season, right through, including a productive overseas leg in which we beat the Reds at Ballymore and even raised 50 points against the Blues in Auckland, when I sat out with a (niggle) but I remember Tonderai Chavhanga and Adri getting a few tries. We put up a good fight in the semi, too (eventually losing 27-16). Present coach Robbie Fleck was still playing at centre then, Corne was an inspirational leader in his last season, and I just missed out on playing with Bob (Skinstad) as he was injured, before leaving Newlands. Pieter Rossouw had also come back, and provided great rugby knowledge. My two coaches were obviously Gert and Carel (du Plessis): Gert when you were a young fellow was quite an intimidating character; Carel was just lovely – an exceptional rugby brain, highly intelligent man. People like those guided you. Then I gradually started developing big mates of my own like Faan Rautenbach, Daan Human, Werner Greeff … Jean de Villiers was obviously coming through as well. Schalk Brits and Ross Skeate were also part of the young crop who had come through the under-21 ranks. Things then went a little bit south for the Stormers in 2005 …
Super 12 in 2004 versus Super Rugby in 2016 … just how much has really changed?
It’s changed massively – it used to be a sprint, a 200m dash, three months start to finish. Now it has become a marathon, with much more of a league (feel). We only had four SA franchises back then, and not a lot of young players got opportunities; squads were filled with seasoned pros, veterans and Springboks. Perhaps two, three youngsters got a crack. Now with the bleeding of players (to overseas clubs) more and more youngsters are pushed through fast. For me the best Super Rugby era was Super 12, Super 14, round-robin format. You played everyone once, no conferences, and then semis for the top four and a final. For me it became a bit more tough when we got into conferences with two derbies against each SA team. I reckon the allure, in all the years of Super Rugby, is people coming down to Newlands to watch McCaw, Carter, the Brumbies stars of a certain period like Gregan, Larkham, some of the world’s best players … that’s why we used to average almost 50,000 people! It was always nice, vice-versa, for people in Christchurch to see De Villiers, Habana, Jaque Fourie, myself slugging it out against equivalent players they’ve got. That’s the sad part … but you know, we’re accommodating more teams now, the competition’s got bigger and we had to come up with change. If I could change something back, it would only be to get rid of the conference system, even if it would mean you couldn’t play every single team because it would make the season too long. But much more of a round-robin feel again would be good.
There are rumblings in New Zealand about how some of their strong-performing sides won’t get to an advanced stage primarily because of the constraints of the system … but is there a case, from this end, for saying the balance is simply being rectified a bit, given SA teams’ long-time disadvantage in extended travel abroad?
I’m not too sure, really. I felt we did get the hang of the travel factor a bit, later on; those four-week tours and sometimes five. I still loved the old month tour abroad by our Super Rugby side; we mostly travelled decently even if there were also seasons where we certainly didn’t, and would look back ruing how the tour cost us good (finishes on the table). It’s a different structure now, where it is quite difficult looking at a log -- you see the Brumbies sitting second on the Australasian group but with only 39 points, and so on. Last year we also qualified, while not that high in pure points terms: at least this year, if we beat the Kings on Saturday, we move up to 50 or 51 points and you’re going to qualify (authentically) anyway, regardless of the conference provisos. It is what it is … you play the cards you’ve been dealt. I’ve also enjoyed this season’s Super Rugby: still a nice competition, it was good to travel to Argentina and Singapore, even though we didn’t play so well there. It’s just very complex to follow, and the key in life really is to simplify complicated things. It has been tough to follow, with all the different logs …
Is there any single season, among the several truly competitive ones by the Stormers, where you particularly felt ‘we blew a great title chance’?
I think probably the period we were at our best was 2010, 2011 2012. I’m probably inclined to lean toward the first two. Unfortunately in 2010 we caught the Bulls teams at that point as perhaps the best in the world – really a year where all their guys were just superior, just at another level despite how good we were too. In 2011, we did well again to land a home semi, but lost to the Crusaders. Mind you, 2012 was also extraordinarily successful in many ways: we won some 14 out of 16 ordinary-season games, but then the Sharks toppled us at Newlands, again in the semi-final. That period was pretty much our prime; we had a lot more experience back then. But this current group is also a very young, exciting one. We are quickly learning, taking ownership of positions.
You are a “one-club” man in a South African context … was there ever a moment during the years where that status might have changed?
No, not really. I think if your name is Schalk Willem Petrus Burger and you’ve played for Western Province you are pretty much stuck here! Obviously it stretches even before my first-class career; I played with a very successful U19 team here in 2002, plus the U21s. Sure, in Super Rugby terms there were some tough spells, like when we lost by that record 75-14 to the Bulls in Pretoria (2005) and there was a time, though quite briefly, when I wasn’t quite in my comfort zone. A lot of players I grew up playing with left at around the same time, but then plenty of guys I grew up with, my generation, started getting increasing opportunities. So there were just a couple of years when you didn’t totally enjoy your rugby; being in Cape Town is a tough place when things aren’t going well for the rugby team.
What’s it been like not having your old ally Jean de Villiers anywhere around the dressing room this year?
Well, obviously off the field there’s still a massive amount of humour left … Jean’s a funny man. On the field, it’s just the leadership that was once there; when one of us was captain and the other the vice-captain, there was always that dialogue, that chat, and it was seamless. I think the challenge at the Stormers at the moment is developing (new) leaders. It only comes with time and experience. With Jean not in the backline, Damian (de Allende) is a developing leader there, and Jean-Luc (du Plessis) is in an important berth at 10, so he’s having to talk a lot more than I suppose he would have if Jean was next to him. But that’s the challenge and you are putting young kids under pressure and what’s impressive is that they embrace it. We’re exposing a lot of talent, and realising how good they actually are. But yes … I’m missing Jean in the mix; he’s still my valued friend. I miss the room-mate aspect too. I’m in my own room now, so it’s a bit lonely late at night; no more sweets brought back from the tuckshop …
What precisely does the Newlands stadium mean to you?
I think it has a unique flavour, Newlands. All the new stadiums have upgraded their facilities to big shower areas and stuff; here it is still quaint and awkward and looks much the same as the day I started here! Look, it comes a long way for me … you shouldn’t under-estimate the impact it had watching my dad train here (he represented a legendary Western Province team in the mid-1980s – Sport24); we always had season tickets for the old scholars’ area. I so remember sitting on wet, muddy days in the winter supporting Province. Then I played my first kaalvoet game for Boland U13 at the ground. So from a young age I had the aspiration to eventually run out in boots onto this turf; it gets into your system. Not everyone gets as lucky as I’ve been to play here for so many years; some have to move on through career choices and stuff. I love Newlands. People always ask me where the best atmosphere is, and when it’s packed I can always confidently say Newlands. The crowd is on top of you; the only place that comes close for me is the Millennium Stadium, though only when the roof is closed. But this is still the oldest international venue. Unfortunately no one knows how long it will be around for; we must just enjoy it while we still can.
Is it your personal hope that rugby stays at Newlands? There’s still that certain modern facility closer to the city centre …
I mean, there are traditionalists … but the new stadium (Cape Town Stadium) is also fantastic. I still enjoy Newlands for now, but there is a business side to it and we all understand that. If it ever moves, I will probably buy a piece of turf here, hit a few golf balls off it … but if we move then so be it. The new place has a special allure also, and is a great facility. We’ve obviously played a bit of rugby there, but of course it would be sad to see Newlands go.
Just how challenging is the future for the Stormers/WP going to be, considering the increasing poaching by overseas clubs of players in all of the young, middling and older categories? Every year there seems to be a mass shedding of players, a need to rebuild again …
I think it’s going to be tough. South Africa as a whole will be under pressure. We are creating a huge number of schoolboy players who are really good, but we can only afford to contract so many. We’re in a bidding war with all the other provincial units in the country, never mind (overseas interest). You can’t hold onto everyone; you have budget constraints, and have to wangle them to try to keep the best possible players. You have to be realistic and say that some players simply have to be let go. It’s a fine balance and a tough job keeping the best squad. But I believe it is manageable. We have to look at how we contract older players; are we contracting them solely for Super Rugby or for the whole year? Currie Cup is still a very important competition for our union, and the coaches and players. At the moment we are going through a phase where we lose a lot of players after Super Rugby, and then we develop again during Currie Cup – it’s a tough job for Robbie and the other coaches because you have to almost restart a culture … and it is a patiently-built culture that breeds your playing style, and ultimately success. Massive turnovers of players like we’ve had for four years or so mean your culture every year changes a bit; you lose the personalities and characters who shape dressing rooms. The sad feeling you get is that we effectively develop players for Europe.
Explain your comparison with county cricketers?
Ja, what has happened in South African rugby quite recently is that we’ve lost the ‘pro’ – the bloke who has played 100 Super Rugby games, and maybe five to 15 Test matches or something, but was basically around all year. He’s the seasoned character who keeps the game together, a bit like the old pro, the journeyman in a county cricket side who is ever-present, has made 10,000 runs and means so much to the team. For us, it is becoming more and more difficult to hold onto guys like that. Yes, you still have your top-end players … and then there’s sort of a void in the middle. The missing ones are all sitting in Europe, Japan. What I can say on a (positive note) is that the talent pool in our region is still phenomenal …
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing