Should Schalk be leading Stormers?

    2016-05-16 16:10

    Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town – Schalk Burger, twice now in three outings, has entered the fray from the ranks of the substitutes to play a pivotal role in staving off budding signs of Stormers meltdowns in Vodacom Super Rugby.

    The latest rescue job -- albeit a partial one given that they still only salvaged a hugely disappointing draw with the Sunwolves -- came in the steamy heat of Singapore on Saturday.

    They were looking particularly flat, fumbling and complacent up to the time that the veteran Springbok loose forward was summoned from the bench in the 46th minute: the much-fancied Stormers were 14-3 down and had only a minute earlier been given a major lifeline when the feisty, up-for-it “home” side were disallowed a try after repeated reviews.

    It was the cue for head coach Robbie Fleck to finally lose patience and make his first major intervention to stop the rot, infusing all of Burger, Bongi Mbonambi and Nic Groom at the same time to necessarily shake things up.

    What you get when you throw on Burger, of course, is not only his vast playing experience but natural leadership qualities as well, as he is a proven, popular prior captain of the franchise and has done the job for the national team on a fill-in basis.

    The 33-year-old couldn’t be said to have produced one of his more standout personal performances -- he quickly caught the Stormers virus on the day of conceding penalties for breakdown indiscretions -- but his mere presence nevertheless seemed to arrest much of the tactical and motivational “madness” as the Capetonians wrestled back a foothold which enabled them to snatch the stalemate at the death.

    It was only three weeks earlier that Burger had again been a major stabiliser, if you like, when the Stormers were tottering a little on the ropes against the Reds at Newlands, caught unawares by a spirited early second-half fightback by the Queenslanders.

    The Reds had turned a 17-10 deficit at the interval into a sudden lead and the hosts were looking a tad rattled when Burger took to the turf in a match marked by the questionable decision to make Damian de Allende the last-gasp skipper as Frans Malherbe, one of the designated co-captains with Juan de Jongh this season, withdrew on the eve of the match.

    Burger took an iron grip on things, not only as player and tactical director but rather obviously in the way he effectively grabbed the leadership tiller from a labouring De Allende … and the Stormers returned to an even keel to run away with things 40-22.

    It is impossible, in fairness, to know from outside the sanctity of the dressing room just how effective the De Jongh/Malherbe alliance is for the Stormers, and my own reservations about the very principle of trendy “co-captaincy” – never mind the strengths or shortcomings of the respective incumbents at Newlands -- are already on record at Sport24.

    All I will say is that on two very obvious occasions now, Burger has made second-half interventions marked overwhelmingly by the way he takes a grip on teetering fortunes, so clearly rubbing off positively on all around him.

    Is that not only a case for arguing that the ever-combative, up-and-at-‘em character should perhaps be starting more regularly, but, dare one say it, also leading the Stormers from the tunnel during his swansong season?

    Give Fleck this much: he is to be applauded in many respects for bravely looking to the future as he took charge through his decision to entrust De Jongh and Malherbe with the captaincy, when the “safe” option would have been to go with the established leadership CV of Burger for 2016.

    Keep in mind that Burger has had an extraordinary catalogue of medical setbacks in his illustrious career, and just maybe he is “rotated” conspicuously often this season for the very reason that over-playing him would be a risky, ill-advised business.

    Then again, the way the blond dynamo has kept bouncing back from injury and illness dramas only sums up his never-say-surrender attitude – something that can be such an attribute in a formidable skipper.

    In explaining the sidestepping of Burger for helmsman, Fleck said a few months ago: “It’s his last season with us and we want him to enjoy his rugby and not worry about … having to handle the group.”

    Fair enough, but I can’t help thinking that leading is no hassle to a player like Burger; it just comes naturally and hardly affects his own, oft-legendary playing standards.

    He has been part of the furniture at Newlands since his wild-haired baptism to the first-class arena in 2003, and in his 14th and closing season for the Stormers would hardly have been impeded in any way by the captaincy.

    There is only mounting evidence, I suspect, that a chance was missed …

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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