Jean de Villiers (Gallo Images)
Johannesburg - Skipper Jean de Villiers and Schalk Burger defied massive odds to be part of the Springbok squad for the Rugby World Cup, which kicks off in England on Friday.
Inside centre De Villiers suffered career-threatening knee ligament damage during a Test defeat by Wales last November.
Flank Burger was recovering from injury three seasons back when he developed bacterial meningitis and doctors told his parents they feared the worst.
But when the South African national team bade farewell to supporters at a Johannesburg hotel this past weekend before flying to London, De Villiers and Burger made passionate vows.
"We will never give up," promised a deeply emotional De Villiers, 34, as he spoke from a temporary outdoor stage.
"The time to play rugby has come and we are ready," stressed Burger, 32, whose father was also a Springbok forward.
But behind the selfies, smiles, hugs, waves and seemingly endless signing of autographs, lay tales of remarkable determination by De Villiers and Burger to be part of the greatest rugby show.
Burger was hospitalised because he had a cyst next to his spinal cord and moved to intensive care after contracting meningitis.
The life of the huge forward - who can operate anywhere in the back row - was on the line and his father and mother were summoned to say "goodbye".
But drawing on the never-say-die spirit he demonstrates on the rugby field, Burger recovered to regain his place with the Stormers and the Springboks.
"What Schalk has gone through in recent years and what he has achieved makes it one of the most inspirational sporting stories of our times," said SARU president Oregan Hoskins.
"He has been an icon of inspiration and the fact that he always seems to have a smile on his face makes it even more joyous to watch him in action."
Allister Coetzee, who left the Stormers after a Super Rugby playoffs exit this season to further his coaching career in Japan, hailed Burger.
"I do not think people realise exactly what Schalk went through during 2012 and 2013, first with his knee injury and then his illness. He is the ultimate warrior.
"Just to get back into the game after those setbacks - never mind what he has achieved since - speaks volumes about his character."
Burger was part of the South African 2007 World Cup-winning squad and this will be his fourth appearance at the quadrennial tournament.
De Villiers recalled his darkest moment as he was about to be carried off the Millennium Stadium pitch in Cardiff with the cold, grey, overcast weather matching his mood.
"My immediate thought was this is the end of my career," said the Stormer who attended the same Western Cape school (Paarl Gymnasium) as Burger.
"But within a short period of time my frame of mind changed and I started setting new goals - I wanted to be back playing by July 2015."
After surgery and hours of daily rehabilitation for eight months, De Villiers came off the bench in a Springbok warm-up game against a World XV two months ago and suffered no ill effects.
But his return as a Test starter, against Argentina in Durban, was disastrous as he suffered a broken jaw and was labelled a "carthorse" by a senior columnist as South Africa suffered a stunning defeat.
But Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer kept faith in his skipper, and who would bet against De Villiers as he urgently seeks match fitness and form.