No tears, only lessons for Springbok great Schalk Burger after 2009 Lions Tour
CAPE TOWN - With less than a minute gone on the clock, Schalk Burger got up at a ruck and tried to prevent Luke Fitzgerald from winning the ball on the ground.
It was the second Test between the Springboks and the British and Irish Lions at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria in 2009, and Burger was keen to get stuck in as soon as possible, as he had missed the first Test in Durban due to a calf injury.
His replacement, Heinrich Brüssow, was outstanding in that match, so Burger wanted to impose himself quickly and remind everybody that the No 6 jersey was his.
But then it all became a disaster – Burger’s fingers went into the left eye area of Lions wing Fitzgerald, and he received a yellow card.
He was subsequently banned for eight weeks, although he was cleared of actual eye-gouging, and was found guilty of “making contact with his opponent’s eye area”.
Now, more than 11 years later, Burger reflected philosophically on the incident as he looked ahead to the 2021 Lions tour of South Africa during a Laureus South Africa webinar this week – which was hosted by former Springbok captain Jean de Villiers.
“It didn’t go according to plan for me personally in 2009 – I contributed quite a controversial part in the game! If you look back at your career, you can’t take it back. There’s no time for regrets in life, but there were definitely learnings for me personally out of that,” Burger told De Villiers.
“The big occasion, you are maybe a bit over-hyped – you missed out on the first Test match: I was injured. I got a start in the second one and missed the 10 minutes for an eye-gouge, and then after that, I had to fight my way back and try to make as many impacts as I could.
“It was a spectacular game to be a part of, and Bryan (Habana) mentioned Jaque Fourie (scoring the winning try to clinch the series) and the end of that game, you couldn’t have scripted better. So, the Lions for me, from a playing perspective, it wasn’t my fondest moment.
“But from an experience, it doesn’t get any better. The guys only come across every 12 years; we’ve mentioned that Frans Steyn can become the only player in the modern era who could do it twice; and it’s just a tour that you have to be part of.”
The concept of lengthy tours has long been dispensed with, and the Lions are the only global team who still play proper provincial matches before or in between Tests.
Even their schedules have been reduced in recent tours, although they will face stronger opposition in South Africa next year. They will kick off the trip against the Stormers on July 3, followed by games against SA Invitational, Sharks, South Africa A and the Bulls ahead of the first Test on July 24 at the FNB Stadium in Johannesburg.
The last two Tests are at Cape Town Stadium and Ellis Park over the following two weeks.
And despite his mixed memories from the 2009 Lions campaign, the 37-year-old Burger misses the old-style tours.
“How the supporters flock to the games, and spending time in cities like Cape Town, or Johannesburg, follow them around through South Africa – it’s a phenomenal experience,” said the 86-Test Springbok loose forward.
“I think rugby, over the years, has missed the long tour. The long tour was what was unique to rugby for a long period of time, and cricket’s still got it. But where you travel through a country and you play versus clubs, difficult culture as a player travelling or as a spectator, they can remember you travelling there.
“Going to Taranaki and playing there, or going to Welkom and playing a game there! And that’s what makes it unique – one of the best teams in the world comes into a country, and the best players on show, and you see it every 12 years. People will drive three, four, 500 hundred kilometres to go and watch a game.
“Where rugby’s moved to, where more is better, or faster or shorter tours, we’ve actually lost what rugby and the ethos of the game is all about. Welkom is better known as the Purple People Eaters! I’ve played one there – I’m glad that I didn’t play another one…”