Cape Town - In questioning Schalk Burger this week about his imminent move to Japan, a concerned citizen bequeathed on him the status once enjoyed by the late legendary cricketer Eddie Barlow when it was suggested that he was as synonymous with the Cape as Table Mountain is.
It is a valid point if you consider how Burger and his good mate Jean de Villiers have become the recognisable face of the franchise and the Western Province union since they first started raising the excitement levels of Cape fans during the 2003 Currie Cup season.
It is now 11 years on and Burger is set to miss the Currie Cup so he can play in Japan, which makes the concerns easy to understand: The end must surely be near?
Well, maybe not, for the Table Mountain of rugby in this part of the world is going to remain part of the Stormers challenge until at least the end of 2016. That means two more seasons of Super Rugby for 31-year-old Burger, so in no sense is Saturday’s game against the Sharks an ending for Burger in the same way that it is for Gio Aplon, Peter Grant and Deon Fourie.
Nearly two years away from the game fighting injury and serious illness has left Burger with a strong appetite to still cut it in Super Rugby and beyond that, and his passion for the southern hemisphere competition and the Stormers has been rejuvenated by the time he has been away.
In that sense, his misfortune may in some way have been the Stormers’ fortune, for if Burger had been playing the last two seasons, he agrees that today may well have been his official goodbye.
“Hopefully I have two years left at the Stormers – 2015 and 2016,” said Burger.
“The deal has been done and hopefully there will be an official announcement in the next few days or in the coming weeks. I have a two-year deal in Japan, but the intention is that I return for two more seasons with the Stormers. After 2016 I will reassess it. Maybe by then my appetite for playing Super Rugby and playing for the Stormers would be less than it is now.
“If it had not been for my unplanned sabbatical, maybe I would have had enough and I would now be committed to only playing rugby in Japan. But that is not the case, I have a strong appetite to continue playing top level competitive rugby and there is a big drive for me to keep proving that I can continue to play at the highest level.”
Burger said that the finer points have yet to be sorted out, but that when it comes to playing for the Springboks over the next two years he will fit into the same deal that applies to Fourie du Preez, who was the driving force in luring Burger to Suntory.
“The plan is for me to fall into the same programme as Fourie, which means I will be available for the June internationals, the home games in the Rugby Championship and all the end of year tour games with the exception of the last one against Wales, which falls out of the IRB’s international window.
“When I started negotiating with Japan I wasn’t sure I would be selected for the Springboks again, but I did make it clear to them that I still had a strong desire to play Super Rugby and I also still had aspirations to play international rugby.”
While some players, particularly forwards, come back from Japan diminished by the less physical nature of Japanese club rugby, it is unlikely to be the case with Burger, who has always been considered a physical freak. Although his comeback has been interrupted by injuries along the way, Burger has confirmed his reputation for being able to slot straight back into a high-intensity rugby environment, such as when he bounced straight back after a serious neck operation in 2006.
And the likelihood that he will get game time for the Springboks during the course of the remainder of the year should mean that he won’t be left with too much catching up to do when he returns to the Stormers next March.
“That is something I spoke to Fourie about, and he reckons I will be fine. Rugby in Japan is not as physical as Super Rugby, but then maybe that is a good thing for me now. Fourie tells me the pace is a lot quicker than Super Rugby, so if I play one or two Test matches during the remainder of the year I should be able to slot back into the Stormers next year without too many problems.”
Burger doesn’t deny that the desire to get his hands on that elusive trophy with the Stormers is possibly one of the factors that has kept his hunger for Super Rugby. He came close twice, with the Stormers team that he captained losing the 2010 final to the Bulls at Orlando Stadium before being beaten in a home semi-final by the Crusaders the following year.
The flank wasn’t part of the WP team that won the Currie Cup in 2012, so there is unfinished business for Burger. However, at the same time, he is not going to get ahead of himself, and he sees the folly in making bold predictions about what might happen in a competition like Super Rugby.
“Super Rugby is a fickle competition. The Reds came last one year, and the next season they won it,” he recalls.
“There is a high turn-around of players from one season to the next, with teams seldom being set for a long period like used to be the case. So it is hard to be bullish about what will happen the following season. We are losing a few experienced players, as we did a few years ago. Losing nearly 400 caps in experience does leave a void.
“We have limited resources at franchise level. But we do have a lot of talented new guys coming through, and they will be fast-tracked into the senior team.
“What is most important though is that we have turned the corner with our playing style. Rugby goes in four- year cycles, and for four years we were the most successful team if you look at our 70% win record in that period.
“Maybe we no longer had the players to play that game or maybe the opposition teams caught on to how we were playing and devolved ways to stop us from winning, but there comes a time when you have to evolve your game, and I feel like we are doing that now. Maybe we started a bit late, but we wanted to evolve from the start of the season. It just took us a long time to start getting rewards.”