Book extract | Schalk Burger Snr unpacks SA rugby coaching in 'Just a Moment'

Schalk Burger Snr, Just a Moment (Supplied)
Schalk Burger Snr, Just a Moment (Supplied)

Former Springbok and businessman Schalk Burger Snr has released a book, written with sports writer Michael Vlismas, entitled: 'Just a Moment'.

The book is not about rugby alone - far from it - as Burger opens up on being a wine farmer, cultural custodian, musician, father and grandfather.

It is a personal and honest journey through the triumphs and hardships that have shaped the life of on of the country's most recognisable rugby figures.

Burger shares stories of run-ins with officialdom, fisticuffs on the field, how he became the first white Springbok selected from a coloured team, and the day Cheeky Watson asked to wash his feet.

In the extract below, he gives his views on the current state of coaching South Africa.

Full extract from 'Just a Moment':

"I’ll never forget the late Western Province rugby player and Springbok wrestler Cliffie Etzebeth once being interviewed by the English media. They wanted to know what lay behind the strength of our Western Province team in the 1980s. Cliffie knew that the Afrikaans word was ‘gees’ but he couldn’t think what it was in English. So he responded: ‘It’s the ghost in our team that makes us strong.’ The English reporter was rather perplexed, as if there was some sinister ghost that allowed us to be better than most of the teams we played against.

Cliffie was right, of course. Team spirit plays a major role in success on the field. But we were also blessed to have some highly intellectual individuals coaching us. To be honest, I just don’t believe we have that level of intellect in modern rugby coaching. As a result, I don’t see coaches in South African rugby who are redesigning the game and creating anything unique at the moment.

Nothing in our game suggests a unique South African style or identity. We are preoccupied with playing rugby like New Zealand, which suits the Kiwis down to the ground. The more we try to play like the All Blacks, the easier it is for the All Blacks to play against us, because they understand that game.   

I believe the closest game to rugby is chess. Every piece has a very particular role it must play. And, similarly, every piece has something it cannot do. You can’t get a pawn to do a castle’s job. That is the big mistake modern rugby makes. Coaches are trying to take a player who is a castle and turn him into a bishop in their game plan. The modern game confuses me, because I don’t know what some of the players’ roles are any more. You can’t make an elephant roar like a lion.

When we had rugby dominance over New Zealand and the rest of the world, what made it difficult to play against us was that we played to our own pattern. We had strong basics. We only took chances in the other team’s half. The quick loose ball was the backs’ ball, not the forwards’ ball. These days, the quick loose ball is being recycled by the forwards. Why? As a defending team, which ball don’t I want to go wide? The quick ball, of course.

There is a simplicity to excellence in rugby.

A successful team has to have confidence in what it can do. The greater the level of confidence, the greater the chance of executing exactly what you want to do. So therefore it also means that successful players need to have confidence in what they can do. And when it comes to players, identity is important.

A good coach will allow enough latitude for a player to express himself through his skills. But to be able to do this, a player needs confidence in what he can do, and he can only develop that confidence if he’s allowed to do it from school level. But at this time in South African rugby, I believe our coaches are selecting too many physically strong players and not enough mentally astute ones. And then they are coaching them into a prescribed pattern that ignores the player’s individual skills.

For example, our flyhalves now stand in the same place every time. How easy is it to defend against that? You want variation. You need to keep the opponent guessing and thinking. When your opponent starts trying to follow what you’re doing, that’s when you can dominate him.

South African rugby looks rushed, because we’re predictable. That’s precisely why a new young player makes a big impact at first – nobody knows about him. Two years later, though, he’s been worked out, mainly because he’s been coached into a set game plan that’s not evolving.

There are so many matches these days that just don’t interest me, and I feel sorry for the players who are being forced into this preprogrammed way of playing the game.

It starts at school level, where a kid is not allowed to make a mistake. How the heck does a player find out the limit or extent of his talent if he’s not given the freedom to push the boundaries and make mistakes? When you just drop a player into a preprogrammed style of play, he becomes a robot.

Wernher von Braun, one of the fathers of rocket technology, claimed that if some of his rockets didn’t explode he would never have figured out how to improve them. Mistakes need to be made in order to learn. That’s why I love sport and believe it’s a vital part of a child’s education. What better way to find out how a kid reacts to pressure, to taking orders, to winning and losing? There is nothing better than sport to reveal this.

But we seem to be forgetting the bigger picture at school level in the chase to win and produce preprogrammed players we can send to Craven Week, so that we can pat ourselves on the back for the number of Craven Week players our school has produced.

For these reasons, I don’t believe there is a single coach in South African rugby today who would be capable of coaching a player like Danie Gerber. He was a genius, but there’s just no room for his kind of genius in the minds of modern coaches. Imagine a coach of today giving Naas Botha the kind of freedom he enjoyed, and which in my opinion made him one of the best match-winners of any generation.

Modern rugby union has become too much like rugby league. There is very little space between the attackers and defenders, and there are few original moves to create more space. You have scrumhalves now doing most of the kicking, which is bringing the catchers closer to the ball chasers.

The positive things I see in today’s players, though, are an increased level of fitness and conditioning, an ability to travel and play away from home better and the impressive way they deal with the demands on their time, both commercial and familial.

But, from an overall perspective on the game, it seems to me as if there is a lack of intellect in the modern game, and if rugby is not a debate, it won’t have a future.

For example, I carried my fascination with mechanics and aerodynamics into my rugby. During my time playing rugby with Western Province, I worked with my teammates to develop the very flat and hard ball thrown to number four in the lineout. For us to pull that move off you had to get the ball spinning a lot early on. A spinning ball travels further and faster through the air. That’s why I don’t understand how the coaches of today tell young players not to torpedo-pass a rugby ball, and how so few kickers in the game today can kick a torpedo kick. My old rugby friend Dawie Snyman and I had a lengthy debate with Hawies Fourie, when he was still the coach of Maties, about the value of a spinning ball in the modern game.

You can even look at the modern hookers and their throwing in the lineouts. They struggle to throw a ball in the wind because they use both hands, so they cannot generate enough spin to get the revolutions on the ball that will make it travel straighter through the wind. I remember spending hours on a Saturday morning, on a lawn in front of the hotel where we were staying, with my Western Province teammate and hooker Shaun Povey as he practised his throws. He had good hands, having been a provincial water polo player. Standing on a hotel lawn, with supporters and cars all around us, I was working on my jumping and he was perfecting the trajectory and spin speed that the ball had to have to get to me.

Another trick that Shaun and I had was that we would walk the east and west touchline boundaries of a field during our captain’s practice the day before the match. He would throw and I would jump, and then he would memorise the position of an advertising board or a specific rugby suite so that, during the game, when the field was full of spectators and players were jumping around, he would have a target to throw at. It was after a particular match against our archrivals, Northern Transvaal, that they said to me I had the highest success ratio of any lock in the country, and especially when I was under pressure. I did have a range of different calls and balls, but Shaun gave me confidence and it was not uncommon in an important match that if I nailed a great take, my hooker could be heard shouting, ‘Great fucking take, Burger’. Obviously, you wanted to jump even higher the next time.

When I was interviewed about the state of South African rugby late in 2018, I spoke out about how rugby is being run in this country. I asked how SA Rugby could spend R144 million on the PRO14 when the Free State Cheetahs are right at the bottom of that competition. How, I wanted to know, could that be good for our rugby?

I really believe that South African rugby needs a reboot. We need to go back and decide how we want to play the game, and not try to copy how the rest of the world is playing it."

*Schalk Burger Snr's 'Just a Moment' is available in all good book stores countrywide ...

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