Springbok legend Schalk Burger has revealed some of the most skillful players he played with and confirmed his two greatest rivals.
Burger was speaking with historian Dr. Dean Allen as the special guest of a fund-raising series for the Chris Burger Petro Jackson Players’ Fund on Thursday evening.
In a wide-ranging and highly entertaining interview, the 2007 World Cup winner shared memorable moments of his decorated 86-Test career, opened up about the challenges he faced with life-threatening injuries and illness, the Kamp Staaldraad-stained 2003 World Cup where he made his Test debut and being a second-generation Springbok.
The Springbok, Stormers and Saracens icon, who was twice named South African Player of the Year (in 2004 and 2011) and won the prestigious IRB Player of the Year award in 2004, also spoke of his love for Newlands, the Stormers’ move to Cape Town Stadium, answered viewers’ questions and shed light on THAT photo with a young Siya Kolisi.
Asked by Quintin van Jaarsveld, sports editor of eHowzit.co.za and a recipient of the Players’ Fund, to list some of his most skilled former Springbok teammates, he said, “Jean [de Villiers] was very skillful. Predominantly his vision. Jean had a natural vision to see where he wanted to move…he picked stuff up quicker than other guys and I suppose that’s what separates better players and the average ones – they instinctively know where to go.”
Ex-Springbok captain and centurion De Villiers, who scored several intercept tries over the course of his illustrious career thanks to the high rugby IQ Burger mentioned, was the first guest of the webinar series last week where he, too, treated listeners to an entertaining evening. De Villiers is the chairman of the Players’ Fund and was on the call as a listener this time, with him and his long-time friend and Springbok roommate engaging in classic banter.
Burger continued, “Damian de Allende is one of the most talented guys I’ve ever seen with a pass. He doesn’t always show that [because] he’s playing inside centre for the Boks where he’s pretty much asked to hit it up.”
De Allende, who took over the Springbok No.12 jersey from De Villiers, played a pivotal role in the Springboks’ World Cup triumph last year and was the standout inside centre of the tournament.
The midfield monster was consistently sublime, but his greatest contribution came in the nail-biting semi-final against Wales, when he scored a sensational solo try to help propel the Springboks to a 19-16 win.
“Then you get guys that come out of school and blow you away like Frans Steyn,” Burger continued. “He kicks left, right, weighs 108kg, passes both sides, [is] not scared of anything and kicks it 70m.”
Steyn was 19 when he was fast-tracked into the Springbok squad and showed maturity beyond his years in the 2007 World Cup in France, including slotting a crucial penalty in the final against England to help South Africa secure the Webb Ellis Cup for a second time.
The virtuoso, equally adept at flyhalf, centre and fullback, became only the second Springbok to clinch two World Cup winner’s medals last year, the first being legendary loosehead Os du Randt, who tasted global glory in 1995 and 2007.
Burger added, “Then you get guys that are skilled in their position. A guy like Victor Matfield – the spaces he saw within the lineout was just different to other guys. Other guys relied on big movements; Victor moved like half a step here or there, had four or five options on himself and most of the games, we didn’t have a lineout call go down.”
Matfield is considered by many pundits as the greatest lineout general in the history of the game. An all-time great, he played a record 127 Tests for South Africa, 23 of those as captain.
Throughout his Test career, which spanned from 2003 to 2015, Burger was locked in a generational battle for the ages, thus it came as little surprise when he identified All Blacks icon Richie McCaw, who was one of the stars on the call, and Wallabies legend George Smith as his greatest opponents.
Hailing the decorated duo as “freakishly talented”, Burger said, “Richie was just a competitor. He didn’t ever stop and just ground it out every single time we played against each other.
“Yes, I might have had a view strengths he didn’t have, but he had a lot of strengths I didn’t have. What frustrated you most playing against him [is] he never lost a game. He played [some] 150 Test matches and won [some] 135 and his record with the Crusaders was pretty much the same.
“George was obviously different in body type to me and had a different skillset but [was] hard to play against and had a nice feel for the game.
“Those guys were great to cut your teeth against because you end up doing one or two good things and while you’ve done your one or two good things, they have done four or five or six good things, so it was a good target to chase.”
McCaw is widely regarded as the best Test skipper the game has ever known, having guided the All Blacks to unprecedented success, including historic back-to-back World Cup victories in 2011 and 2015.
His standing as the best openside flank in history is set in stone, while many historians, journalists and former players also consider him to be the greatest player of all-time.
Smith is held in similarly high regard worldwide. A prolific pilferer with pitbull-like tenacity, Smith holds the distinction as the youngest player to reach the 100-Test milestone at 29 years and four days, and earned 111 caps in all.
He twice won the John Eales Medal, awarded to the best Australian player of the year, and was awarded the Brumbies Players’ Player of the Year award in 10 of his 12 seasons at the Canberra-based Super Rugby franchise.
One of the highlights of the evening was Burger opening up about the viral photo of him signing an autograph for a teenage Kolisi after a Springbok training session at the future transcendent star’s school, Grey High, back in June 2006.
“That photo came up many years later as Siya came to me in the changing room and was like “Schalk, this is me.” I couldn’t believe it,” Burger said, adding he’s “immensely proud” of Kolisi, who spearheaded the Springboks to their third World Cup crown in Japan last year.
“He obviously came to Cape Town in 2010 from Port Elizabeth. Because we were in the same position, we ended up spending lots of time together. Obviously, he was good enough and was always going to play for the Springboks.
“In the finer influences of the game, I spent a lot of time working with Siya. In those days, he sat on the bench behind Duane Vermeulen, Francois Louw and myself. He was the super sub.
“It is not often you see photos like that going around. The latter part of my career, I played a lot with Siya in the same loose trio. It is phenomenal to see his development.”
Next week’s guest is another Springbok icon, Bryan Habana. For more information and to donate to the Players’ Fund, CLICK HERE.