The big question surrounding Schalk Burger’s return to rugby for Western Province against the Cheetahs on Friday is whether he will still be as good as he was before his wretched run with injuries started 18 months ago.
Burger has always been known as a high-octane, no-nonsense player with absolutely no regard for his own well-being. He used to hit rucks with a fierce ferocity, while the opposition players’ eyes would become as big as dinner plates when Burger lined them up in a tackle.
However, before his season-ending knee injury against the Hurricanes in the opening round of Super Rugby last year, Burger did add an element of panache to his game by playing as a linkman for the Stormers which saw him offload the ball a lot more instead of trying to run over an opponent.
Burger has of course also successfully come back from a serious neck injury a few years back, so he has at least some experience of coping with the mental part of his comeback.
And that is probably the reason why WP coach Allister Coetzee thinks the Springbok flank will soon be back to his brilliant best sooner rather than later. But the coach is not putting any stress on Burger, who will start off the bench against the Free State outfit in Bloemfontein on Friday.
“His inclusion into the team is part of his comeback. But he is very positive and it looks good and we are very happy to have him back,” Coetzee said yesterday.
“But there is no pressure on him to perform, because we can’t expect a player like Schalk to be at his best just yet. So we are in the process of giving him gametime so he can become match fit and sharp.
“But the way Schalk was running at training, I don’t see why he can’t be as good as he used to be. He could be even better, because I think he is well-rested.
“The psychological hurdle is going to be his biggest one to clear, but we are going to help him with that. I’m sure he is going to be nervous but if he gets on the field of play, all the muscle memory should kick in and we hope he goes well.”
Coetzee added that having Burger back is like having a new signing, especially as the Currie Cup heads into the business end of the competition with teams trying to secure a home semi-final berth.
Province are the only unbeaten team in the Currie Cup, but are second on the standings behind the Sharks, who put 50 points past the Cheetahs in Durban last weekend.
“Schalk can definitely play more than 20 minutes on Friday. We will see what we can get out of him and then make a call,” Coetzee said.
“It’s like we have a new player and I think that Schalk thinks he is a new player. He looked really sharp during practice. It’s just like a guy who hasn’t ridden a bike in a while.
“He is getting back on the bike now, and there will probably be some timing issues, but I don’t think it will be long until we see the old Schalk. I know he is also looking forward to the challenge.
“His biggest thing is to take contact and get contact fit. I won’t be able to get him contact fit if he is running into bags that don’t tackle back. He will get better with contact and minutes in the legs.”
Another boost for Province is the return of skipper Deon Fourie on the side of the scrum from injury. Fourie is joined in the back row by Michael Rhodes in the run-on team after the former Lions man served a one-match suspension.
However, tighthead prop Frans Malherbe has been given another week to recover from an ankle injury, even though he gave the scrum machine a good working over in Bellville yesterday.
Amongst the backs, outside centre Michael van der Spuy comes in for Juan de Jongh, who has been included in the Springbok squad for Saturday’s Rugby Championship Test against Australia at Newlands.
“Frans came through a good scrum session and it went really well. But we don’t want to rush him, because it’s also a process to get him right. It’s a bit different to Schalk because he is a prop with an ankle injury,” Coetzee said.
“Mike has been waiting for his chance, he practised well and this is a massive opportunity for him. He is excited too and he is a guy that has come through our systems.
“The Cheetahs have a good centre pairing, and they are playing good rugby. But Mike has got the opportunity to play against such a good centre pairing to see where he stands.”
15 Gio Aplon, 14 Gerhard van den Heever, 13 Michael van der Spuy, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Cheslin Kolbe, 10 Kurt Coleman, 9 Nic Groom, 8 Nizaam Carr, 7 Michael Rhodes, 6 Deon Fourie (captain), 5 De Kock Steenkamp, 4 Tazz Fuzani, 3 Pat Cilliers, 2 Scarra Ntubeni, 1 Steven Kitshoff. Bench: 16 Michael Willemse, 17 Brok Harris, 18 Gerbrandt Grobler, 19 Schalk Burger, 20 Josh Katzen, 21 Louis Schreuder, 22 Demetri Catrakilis. - Cape Times