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
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
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
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 …
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