Cape Town - Zak Burger is not your typical South African rugby player.
Having come through the Paarl Gymnasium factory in the Western Cape, he moved to unfashionable Kimberley to kick-start his professional career.
It didn’t take him long to establish himself as a senior player at Griquas, and before you know it, he was the team captain – and sported a long mullet hairstyle.
Burger chopped off his locks when he arrived at Loftus Versfeld in 2021, but that spunk in his play is still evident as he tries to get the Bulls’ attack going.
That’s why it is no surprise that he is sporting a ‘shiner’ on his forehead at the moment after becoming entangled in a ruck – of all places for a scrumhalf – during last week’s 39-28 Champions Cup victory over Exeter Chiefs in Pretoria.
“It happened during the match, where I found myself by accident at the bottom of a ruck… And that is what happens when a scrumhalf climbs into rucks!” Burger sheepishly smiled about the bruise this week.
The 24-year-old has been the most consistent halfback this season despite facing serious competition from Embrose Papier, Bernard van der Linde and Keagan Johannes for the No 9 jersey, and is likely to direct the Bulls backline again in Friday’s clash against Lyon in France (10pm SA time kickoff).
Burger’s decision-making, passing and kicking game are consistent and aids the Pretoria side’s rhythm on attack, which appeared to be back where it should be against Exeter.
The Bulls scored some superb tries, especially those well-worked moves from tap kicks, and it is all about maintaining the tempo with ball-in-hand.
Burger varies his play smartly with the odd box-kick too, and ensures the energy permeates through a lethal backline including strike-runners such as Wandisile Simelane, Canan Moodie and Kurt-Lee Arendse.
“The backs must certainly say thank you to the pack on the day – I thought they were phenomenal on the day. In the scrums, the lineouts, our mauls were very good, and they gave our backs a dream world to get the ball in hand and attack in space. Our pack made it very easy for us as backs,” Burger said about the performance against Exeter.
“Especially in the games against the Stormers and Sharks, what made it difficult for us was that our discipline wasn’t up to standard. We couldn’t get into the right areas on the field.
“And in both those matches, we had three yellow cards in the Sharks game – Canan Moodie got two and it became a red card, and against the Stormers, we also got two yellow cards.
“So, in the last two weeks against the Dragons and Exeter Chiefs, we placed an emphasis on our discipline in particular, to improve that so that we at least have a fair chance in the game and play with 15 men against 15 men.
“Then to have some freedom to play, and it’s a bit easier at Loftus – where the sun shines – to play a bit of running rugby.”
It’s going to be very different at the Stade Gerland in Lyon on Friday night, though, where sub-zero temperatures await the South Africans and a home side desperate to keep their playoff hopes alive.
The long trip to France won’t help either, and Burger knows there is a lot at stake.
“A French side at home is very dangerous. Lyon wouldn’t be happy with where they are at the moment on the Champions Cup log, but they are an outstanding team. They have a very big pack, a mobile pack and a few big backs with speed,” he said.
“Their crowd will surely get behind them, and I just looked now and saw the weather is also quite cold there.
“I think number one to six or seven, there are only four or five points between the teams in our group.
“If we can get that win against Lyon, it will be massive in terms of where we finish on the log, as we want to give ourselves a good opportunity to play a round of 16 game at Loftus. The ball is in our hands, and we must make use of this opportunity.”
Bulls Tour Squad
Ruan Nortje (captain), Simphiwe Matanzima, Bismarck du Plessis, Francois Klopper, Ruan Vermaak, Janko Swanepoel, Marco van Staden, Cyle Brink, Embrose Papier, Johan Goosen, David Kriel, Gerhard Steenekamp, Johan Grobbelaar, Mornay Smith, Reinhardt Ludwig, Wandisile Simelane, Dylan Smith, Nizaam Carr, Elrigh Louw, Zak Burger, Chris Smith, Stravino Jacobs, Jan-Hendrik Wessels, Kurt-Lee Arendse, Harold Vorster, Lionel Mapoe, Canan Moodie, Bernard van der Linde, Morne Steyn, Cornal Hendricks.