Springbok’s Burger getting back to his best at World Cup

GUILDFORD, England (AP) For young Springboks teammates and even for older coaches, it’s hard to reconcile the Schalk Burger who is so chilled out on the sidelines with the wrecking ball of a backrower he morphs into on the field.

The 32-year-old South African flanker, easily distinguishable for his flowing blonde hair – albeit thinner now than in his 20s – and constant proximity to the ball, has been one of the best performers at the Rugby World Cup, despite his advancing age in rugby terms and the fact his career was almost derailed by a life-threatening illness two years ago.

”The great thing about Schalk – I can’t work him out,” Springboks coach Heyneke Meyer said. ”For him to just be alive is great, that why he’s so relaxed.

”He’s always smiling and I think he’s not ready (before a game), but when he goes on the field he’s like a different human being.”

Against the defending champion All Blacks in the semifinals on Saturday, Burger will come up against Richie McCaw, one of the greats of the modern game.

And the contest between the New Zealand and South African backrows combinations has Meyer excited.

”It’s going to be an unbelievable battle between the loose forwards,” Meyer said Wednesday after announcing an unchanged starting lineup for the semifinals. Burger has had more ball carries than anyone at the tournament and is third on the list of most tackles. He had his best game to date in the 23-19 quarterfinal win over Wales.

The only change to the 23-man match squad to face the All Blacks was the 38-year-old lock Victor Matfield returning to the bench after missing three games with a hamstring strain.

Fourie du Preez, the captain and try-scorer against Wales, Burger, Matfield and winger Bryan Habana are among the survivors of South Africa’s last World Cup campaign who are back for another go.

Of all them, Burger – playing in his fourth World Cup – has had the toughest journey back. And it wasn’t merely the usual rugby-related injuries that caused him to miss large chunks of international seasons in 2006 and 2012.

In 2013, after surgery to a cyst next to his spinal cord, Burger developed bacterial meningitis.

”There was a critical stage for nearly five days in which there was a lot of uncertainty,” Burger recounted when he received an international award for the 2014 world sport comeback of the year. ”I was in isolation and I was seriously ill, so ill that some people around me thought `this is it’.”

His family was called to the hospital to say their goodbyes.

”I put them through a hell of a lot,” he was quoted as saying recently in the Daily Mail. ”Everyone around me got one heck of a fright – including myself.

”It puts life into perspective. Before I got injured, rugby pretty much dominated my life. Whatever I did revolved around rugby, but now I see … there is much more to life.”

Burger, who has been playing club rugby in Japan and has two young children, was one of a succession of captains for the Springboks as the team struggled with injuries to senior players this year. But he didn’t mind relinquishing the role to du Preez after Jean de Villiers was forced into instant retirement at the start of the tournament.

Not having the extra responsibility lets him lead the way he knows best – at full pace, and in the middle of as many collisions as possible.

It also ties in with his relaxed pre-match attitude, and his preference for post-match team bonding exercises.

”He’s been brilliant, probably the fittest he’s been. His work rate is immense,” Meyer said. ”Schalk adds so much difference – he brings leaderships as well. You need characters on the team and he’s one of them.”

Wrapping up the topic by letting the assembled media in on a secret ”I don’t think he’ll mind me saying,” Meyer said: ”I think he plays just to have a beer with his mates” after the games.