New Vodacom Stormers captain Schalk Burger has taken up the position on a full-time basis for the first time this season, but he is no stranger to leadership.
Looking ahead to the season during a break in the preparation phase, Burger pointed out that as with past years when other players have been at the helm, he will be relying heavily on the core group of experienced players to help him lead the team.
‘I have captained the Vodacom Stormers before, but those were in one-off games where I was usually standing in for someone else,’ said Burger.
‘This is different because I have been appointed for the season, and obviously with that comes a lot more responsibility. I have to play a much bigger off-field role now than before, and I have to talk at functions, attend press conferences and spend a lot more time talking to the media.
‘But in terms of leading the team, there won’t be too much that is different as I have been one of the experienced players for a while now and am used to taking on leadership responsibilities. Our leadership group has changed a bit with Jean de Villiers leaving, but we have gained Bryan Habana and Jaque Fourie.
‘Both of those guys are experienced Springboks who have won a World Cup and a Vodacom Tri-Nations, and they have already added great value. I will be leaning heavily on them for advice, as I will on the other senior players. Rugby is a team sport and you won’t win anything if the team doesn’t work together.
‘We put in a lot of effort during the pre-season on team building, and we have had a lot of fun together. It does feel that we have a unified group with everyone working from the same page. Hopefully it will translate into the right results on the field.’
For every team the ultimate goal is to win the Vodacom Super 14 trophy, but for Burger, one of the most important things is that the players have fun in their quest for success.
‘I know rugby is a business these days, but to me it is still important that you have fun playing the game. And the best way to ensure that you have fun and that the team is a vibrant, happy unit is to win, and keep winning,’ he said.
The hulking flanker admits that some of his experiences in the Vodacom Stormers jersey have not been pleasant, and he desperately craves the consistency that he feels has sometimes been missing.
‘In my first season, 2004, we started really well and we ended up making the Super 12 semi-finals. Everything looked very promising. But then the following year we crashed badly, and a lot of us still have unhappy memories of the massive defeat to the Vodacom Bulls at Loftus at the end of the 2005 season.
‘I’m not sure if we’ve completely erased that memory because we still haven’t beaten the Vodacom Bulls since that day. But the Vodacom Bulls match comes much later this season; there are a lot of big challenges that we have to face down before we get there.
‘In 2008 we nearly made the semi-finals, just missing out on the top four by one bonus point, but last year we struggled again and finished well down the table. We need to find that consistency and build ourselves into a force that challenges on a regular basis.
‘There have been years when we’ve had good players in the team and yet we’ve still struggled so I can’t put my finger on why that’s the case,’ said Burger.
Burger is confident, though, that the Vodacom Stormers are gaining momentum in a process that started a long time ago – that of toughening up and dispensing with the reputation of being a soft team.
‘I don’t think those criticisms were always fair, but we did appear to have a reputation in the rest of the country for being softies and maybe also for not working as hard as we should. But that has changed over the past few seasons.
‘Since Rassie Erasmus has been in charge there’s been a revolution in terms of work ethic, and last season in the Absa Currie Cup everyone took notice of how aggressively Vodacom Western Province played. There was real commitment to the cleaning out at the breakdowns and our pack made massive progress. I don’t think there are too many now who will label us a soft team, but it is important for us to keep at it.’
This feature article was written by Sports Journalist Gavin Rich and appeared in the Vodacom Stormers official Match Magazine (Vodacom Stormers vs Waratahs), sold at Newlands Rugby Stadium on match day.