Pretoria - Stormers captain Schalk Burger is in a unique position among Super 14 rugby players as the tournament heads into the play-off rounds and the penultimate weekend of competition.
One of the big talking points in the build-up to the Saturday afternoon South African double header is the travel bogey – and particularly how it pertains to the Crusaders.
Not only did Richie McCaw’s men have to travel further than the Waratahs to get to Soweto for the early semi-final, they also had to reverse a long journey that they took little more than a week earlier.
Pretoria/Johannesburg to Christchurch via Sydney; Christchurch to Soweto/Johannesburg via Sydney and Perth was the routing the Crusaders would have taken over the space of about eight days, and let’s not forget that the Crusaders arrived in South Africa via Perth only two weeks previously.
So a not insignificant proportion of the Crusaders’ players time has been spent in the air just recently – and much of that flying time has been moving across time zones.
Faced with that sort of itinerary you would class the Crusaders’ chances of beating the Bulls on Saturday as minimal, and it was one of the reasons that they were seen by the Bulls as a preferred opponent.
Only once before has a team had to undertake a journey like the Crusaders just have, and that was the Stormers in 2004. They played a league match in Christchurch, flew back to Cape Town for a few days before transferring to Durban, where they played the Sharks in the final league game.
Then it was onto the plane again and back across the sea for the semi-final.
Burger is the sole remaining survivor from that team still part of the Stormers set-up. He has his own problems on his hands as he prepares his men for the challenge that will be mounted by the Waratahs in the Cape Town semi-final, and he was also understandably reluctant to be seen to be talking down fellow South African team, the Bulls.
But Burger, although remembering the 2004 experience as one where the odds were stacked against the Stormers, is not ready to write the off Crusaders’ chances.
“It is tough to do all that travelling and it did affect us in 2004, but we were actually more competitive in the semi-final that year than we were in the league game that was played before we flew home,” said Burger.
“It will be tough, but it can be done. I wouldn’t want to be writing the Crusaders off. Not for nothing are they seven times champions and they are in the semi-finals for the 12th time. That shows that they have championship qualities and a winning culture and they have achieved what they have achieved through determination.”
Certainly the Crusaders weren’t as impacted by jetlag last week against the Brumbies as many might have expected them to be. At one stage of the second half the commentators started to talk about travel fatigue starting to make its presence felt as the Brumbies fought back from an early deficit. But that was just the cue for the Crusaders to engage a different gear and go even further ahead.
The recent clash between the Crusaders and Bulls at Loftus was a tempestuous affair, and stories coming out of the Crusaders change-room are already becoming the stuff of legends.
To paraphrase, the Crusaders were in a foul mood after being denied by a controversial late try, and looked set to trash the Loftus change-room, when skipper McCaw drew them all together into a huddle and made all the players pledge that they would make sure they went on to win the competition come what may.
Can determination overcome science and the debilitating impact of travel on the body? It is what makes this match so intriguing, for there was no denying the steely resolve in McCaw’s voice when he spoke about the game following the win over the Brumbies last week. And there is also no denying the pedigree of a Bulls side that has won two Super 14 titles in the space of the last three years.