It was as much a roar of surprise as one of excitement by the DHL Newlands Faithful when Frans Malherbe ran in for his second try from Schalk Burger’s flick pass in the DHL Stormers’ victory over the Highlanders two weeks ago.
Burger’s trademark over the years has been fearlessness. He would boldly stick his head into places where no man had dared to before, relish tackling and take pleasure in clattering into whoever was in his way.
In doing so, he established himself as the quintessential South African player: bold, aggressive and hellishly physical.
What’s more, ‘Schalla’ always played the game with a smile and even after the most difficult phase of his career and, indeed, life the past few years, he has never had to rediscover it. It has been there without exception.
While there have been signs since 2007 that he has added a linking game to his repertoire, it was never more evident than against the Highlanders. His delightful pass to Malherbe did not define his performance. It was merely his coup de grace in a game in which he relished linking with his teammates.
“I got the call from Frans that he was running the line. To be honest, I didn’t particularly feel like contact and when I received the pass a little late and knew Frans was there, I could only get it to him with a flick. They don’t always come off, but fortunately that one did,” Burger recalls with a smile.
“The guys know when they’re around me, there is always a good chance I will pass the ball. Duane Vermeulen would probably take contact and dominate his opponent, whereas I would look to link.”
Schalla Skinstad? Not quite, but you get the point.
“I’ve always had that ability. It’s not something I’ve suddenly learned,” he says.
“When I was younger, I had a specific role as a No.6 with the Springboks, Stormers and Western Province. I had a big neck operation in 2006 and in the wake of that I made a decision in 2007 to change my game a little.
“Eddie Jones (the former coach of Australia), who was the Springboks’ technical adviser at the World Cup in 2007, brought in a few moves in which I could use my distribution skills.
“And when one gets older, you try to avoid contact on the odd occasion and rather link. So I gave the ball to Frans and let him run!”
Burger made his comeback from serious injury and illness in last year’s Currie Cup and has had this year’s Vodacom Super Rugby campaign disrupted by a troublesome calf, which meant that the game against the Highlanders was his first involvement at DHL Newlands at this level in more than two years.
“It was great to start a game at DHL Newlands again. There is an incredible energy about the stadium. And it was nice to be part of the Stormers’ best performance of the season up until then,” he says.
“We also played well against the Lions, but stepped it up a notch against the Highlanders. Unfortunately, we couldn’t quite sustain the intensity throughout. We still have spells where we drift a little, but it was positive.”
Burger is happy with the development of his game since his return last year. The question was always whether he would be able to rediscover his form of old and he has answered it emphatically.
“I’m quietly confident,” he says about the issue of being back to his best, despite missing his team’s game against the Force on Saturday.
“It’s going well every time I play and I feel I’m adding value. What I need now is to go on a run of four or five games. If I can manage that, I believe I will play an outstanding game somewhere along the line. I feel good. My body is doing its best to keep up with the pace and hopefully I will remain healthy!”
Burger’s stated ambition is to force himself into Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer’s plans, but right now the old adage of ‘game by game’ applies.
On the personal front, there has also been a big development for Burger: the birth of his second child, Nicol, who is now seven weeks old. Little Schalk is now at 22 months.
“They’re very cute,” he says.
“Fortunately, I have a very understanding wife, and I can still play golf once a week and drink a few beers with friends. I’m very grateful for her and that we have two healthy children.”
DHL Stormers Matchday Magazine