Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – Schalk Burger, in a poignant tribute, has lifted the lid on his bone-crunching personal rivalry for several years with Jerry Collins on the Test and Super Rugby field.
The 48-cap All Black flank legend was laid to rest in his home town of Porirua, New Zealand, earlier this week, following the June 5 car accident in southern France which killed Collins, 34, and his Canadian partner Alana Madill.
Their baby daughter Ayla remains in a stable but “worrying” condition in hospital.
“I was deeply saddened ... we’ve lost one of our true warriors of the game,” veteran Springbok and Stormers loose forward Burger told Sport24 on Thursday.
“I knew Jerry very well; played a lot of rugby against him and also had the pleasure to play for the Barbarians (at Twickenham) with him.
“There are nothing but good memories: on the rugby field obviously he was hard as nails. But he would also be the first bloke to come up and have a beer with you, exchange a shirt ... wonderful man, and a real rugby man, so he will be missed.
“There were similarities in our playing philosophies, absolutely. It was helped, of course, by there being such a big natural rivalry between the Springboks and All Blacks. Then you added Jerry Collins onto that – he was the one guy who always set the physical tone for them.
“So that was my job, back in the day – try to keep Jerry quiet, or try to intimidate him if you could. Look, this was a bloke who never backed down: he was one of those players who would grab a ball 50 yards back, look you in the face and basically say as he (advanced) ‘OK, let’s see who is the bravest here’.
“He was a hard, hard man.”
It is probably fitting, in terms of his memories of an old foe and friend, that Burger regards a 2005 Tri-Nations Test between the Boks and All Blacks at his home venue of Newlands – South Africa won 22-16 – as one of the personal favourites among his 75 green-and-gold appearances thus far.
Burger and Collins went hammer and tongs at each other that day in a generally captivating, uncompromising encounter.
“Yes, I remember it big time ... there were a couple big hits going both ways; I think Jerry had a few on me that day. But that was what it was like playing Jerry; there was just no backing down.
“If you were the type of (opponent) to back down I think he would have lost respect for you. He wanted you to show your respect by taking him head-on. Jerry won most of those collisions throughout his career. He was a tough player but also an honest and true man.
“A couple of hard men come on the scene and make their presence felt for a little while, but Jerry was one of those who stood the test of time. If you were carrying the ball you always felt he was hunting you down, that he was coming.”
What was it like having rival turn colleague in a rare instance on Barbarians duty?
“I don’t think this interview’s long enough to describe that Baabaas experience,” said Burger with a smile. “Obviously Barbarians nights (out) start reasonably early, and training is short ...
“Every night would start at the Red Bar in Park Lane (London) and then continue until the early hours of the morning. A couple of times in Wellington too (Collins’ long-time home base with the Hurricanes – Sport24), Jean de Villiers and I would have a big night with him. He was just a nice man.
“We obviously played for a long, long time against each other, starting at the World Cup of 2003. I’ve always held that (rugby socialising) aspect close to my heart on the rare occasions it is possible with modern scheduling, and I know Jerry did as well.”
Collins was known to richly respect the uniqueness of the Bok-All Black rivalry, and when picked for a BaaBaas team to tackle the then World Cup-holding Boks at Twickenham in 2007, he was asked what it would be like facing Burger and co-flank at the time Juan Smith.
With a twinkle in his eye, he replied: “Yeah, real friendly, eh? Can’t think there’ll be a lot of man-hugging going on out there.”
Final word to Burger: “Let’s just hold thumbs that Jerry’s little daughter pulls through. The whole rugby world was touched by what happened earlier this month.
“It still doesn’t feel real.”
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