- Pieter Burger, the outgoing Pumas CEO, looks back fondly on a "humbling" five-year journey in Nelspruit.
- The 42-year-old took over during a very challenging period for the sport in general and admits that he felt discouraged at times about "our industry's problems".
- Yet through determination and a willingness to always be creative, Burger and his executive continue to ensure that the Pumas command respect in the broader rugby fraternity.
Pieter Burger used to have the same mixed feelings about referees as the average South African rugby fan.
"If a ref was blowing fairly or even a bit in favour of the team I was supporting, he was a good guy in my books. But if he was making decisions against them, I would complain vehemently," he told Sport24.
That changed at the start of 2015 when the 42-year-old was appointed the Pumas' CEO, a position he'll vacate next week to become the MD of Ellis Park Stadium.
"One of the jewels in our crown at the union is our referees association. They've been the best in their area for many years and have received numerous accolades. Working with them made me realise what a challenging responsibility it is. These are dedicated, passionate people who constantly strive to improve.
"Nowadays, I'll still complain about a ref now and then, but if I hear someone moaning over a Pumas referee I'll become very defensive and annoyed!"
It's those small revelations and joys that have made Burger's "rollercoaster" five years at the Mbombela Stadium so rewarding, particularly given that he could've been considered an outsider.
Despite matriculating in Nelspruit, studying Sport Management and playing rugby, Burger didn't have much administrative experience in the sport.
A seasoned businessman, he only started to build a bond with the game as ProTours' national marketing and sales manager, who had been the Pumas' transport partner, eventually serving as an independent director on the union's broad.
Then, while on a business trip to Singapore, the call came.
"Getting into rugby humbles you, particularly at a so-called smaller union," said Burger.
"It's been a fabulous opportunity, but also one where I learned something new almost daily. Because I had to familiarise myself with this unique environment without much prior knowledge, it really felt taxing at times."
The avid fisherman and hunter certainly chose one of the most challenging eras for South African rugby to become involved: from an increasingly smaller market for a mid-tier union to play in, financial challenges at mother body SA Rugby, the continued player exodus and a Covid-19 pandemic that has decimated a sponsorship model dominated by small to medium business enterprises.
"Look, I'll be frank. It sometimes felt to me as if there are only problems in our industry," said Burger.
"There wasn't really a time where you could say I have no challenges to address, that everything was just fine. There were times where I really felt discouraged, but at least I never ran out of ideas."
And to survive in the dog-eat-dog world of local rugby, you need to be creative.
"You're always making plans. You're adapting your contracting strategy, you're improving governance, you're regularly engaging and negotiating with new commercial partners all within the broad restriction of limited finances.
"Yet all these seemingly wayward things always came together for one common goal: to be better," said Burger.
"All we've ever wanted to be was more competitive. I made mistakes and I'll heartily admit to them. But I'm really proud of where I leave the Pumas."
Under a compact coaching structure, led by director of rugby Jimmy Stonehouse, the Lowvelders indeed still punch above their weight as serial contenders in the SuperSport Rugby Challenge and competitive underdogs in the Currie Cup.
"But I really hope South African rugby continues to appreciate the fact that we don't justify our existence on our on-field results alone," said Burger.
"We've been competitive on various fronts. We've barked with the big dogs at times, we've achieved financial stability in a very tight economic environment, we were chosen to host a Springboks-All Blacks Test and we've contributed to South African rugby by giving new heroes their big break.
"Faf de Klerk, Vincent Koch and Renaldo Bothma were Pumas who became internationals. Recently, Jeandre Rudolph, Chris Smith and Le Roux Roets became Super Rugby players. These are the things that matter. That's not to say that the Pumas shouldn't aim higher in the future still, but I'm really proud that we continue to command respect."