Cape Town – Eight points down when he poignantly took to the Free State Stadium turf, the dice seemed loaded against Western Province favourite Schalk Burger making a winning return to first-class rugby on Friday.
But the Cheetahs, who had earlier held the upper hand for generous periods of the Currie Cup match, lost their grip almost as simultaneously as Burger entered the fray, and a 79th-minute dropped goal from another returning player, flyhalf Demetri Catrakilis, eventually tilted the ding-dong tussle 29-27 in the visitors’ favour.
Expect the combative loose forward to down a cold refreshment or two with his team-mates following the important triumph, which saw champions WP open up a four-point log lead over the second-placed Sharks who nevertheless had the late fixture of the day in hand against the Lions to try to make that situation short-lived.
The blond star could feel he put himself about reasonably influentially in his short burst, often being right over the ball at breakdowns, making a couple of tackles and once getting some ball-in-hand activity too.
A team man to the core, Burger would have been as delighted to have contributed to the victory as he would have been to come through unscathed – at least that is what it seems publicly -- and presumably be thinking that the only way is up now after his huge layoff.
Perhaps a start remains ill-advised at this stage (WP next tackle the Lions at Newlands next Saturday), but it seems feasible that some 30 or 40 minutes will be the next target for him.
Burger was well received by the predominantly pro-Cheetahs faithful as he took to the park, getting the roughly 20 minutes in the final quarter that had seemed a good bet from the moment it was revealed earlier in the week that he would be included on the WP bench.
The now 30-year-old seasoned Springbok had admitted to his great friend and current Bok captain Jean de Villiers in a message ahead of the contest that he was “unusually nervous” about the comeback opportunity.
That was fully understandable: he had not played since tearing knee ligaments as far back as February 25 last year, when his Stormers team beat the Hurricanes 39-26 despite the debilitating sight of him hobbling off not long after the start of that Super Rugby clash.
Later in his unexpectedly marathon rehab saga he had a reportedly near-death setback as he contracted meningitis and, although he came through it, he suffered demoralising weight loss – speculation inevitably mounted that his illustrious career was under threat.
But Burger is nothing if not a fighter – he has traditionally come back strongly and fearlessly from injury – and is now not that far away from an elusive Currie Cup-winning medal if Province can retain momentum in the next few weeks.
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing