Schalk Burger (Gallo Images)
London - Schalk Burger beat a life-threatening illness, overcame potentially career-ending injuries, and did everything he could to get South Africa into another Rugby World Cup final.
On Saturday, he took the blame for the 20-18 semi-final loss to New Zealand.
As the 32-year-old flanker left the field in the 63rd minute, in the rain at Twickenham, he gave the crowd a quick clap over his head, his back to the field as New Zealand mounted an attack in South Africa's quarter.
"We created opportunities and there was never going to be a lot in it, but we came up two points short," said Burger, who is South Africa's most capped Rugby World Cup player with 19 appearances across four tournaments. "I have seen this movie before, and it's bloody horrible."
The Springboks landed all of their penalty goals, defended brilliantly under relentless pressure, attacked the rucks, drove mauls, and dominated at scrum time. But New Zealand crossed for a try in each half, and forced two key errors in the lineout.
Asked if he thought those lineouts were turning points, Burger stepped in to defend, owning up to an error that led to New Zealand's go-ahead second try in the 52nd minute.
"The lineouts that we lost didn't help, it created pressure and made us defend a bit more, but if you look at the whole game there's so many variables," he said. "Probably the biggest one was me carrying, lost the ball in our own 22. They scored seven points — it was probably the turning moment in the game. It's not only lineouts, it was probably my mistake."
Burger stood in for captain Fourie du Preez at the post-match news conference because the veteran scrumhalf was getting treatment for swelling around his left eye. Both players have been instrumental in South Africa's comeback following a shocking opening loss to Japan, and both will likely return soon to international retirement. Du Preez scored the late try in the 23-19 quarterfinal win over Wales, and Burger has been the leading ball-carrier in the tournament, on top of his immense defensive work.
For Burger, among eight surviving Springboks who won the 2007 World Cup, just being back in the national colours was an achievement considering he was in intensive care with bacterial meningitis in 2013, and family members were warned that it could be fatal.
"Two years ago it wasn't really possible for me to play in a semi-final," he said. "The last 18 months I've been playing nicely. This result didn't go our way and, at the moment, it's very painful sitting here, having lost out to the All Blacks. But one day I think I will be able to reflect that it was an amazing comeback. It was a massive effort, and sometimes in life you just don't win."
South Africa lost 10 of its previous 12 tests against the All Blacks but had a 2-1 edge in World Cup encounters with the New Zealanders, starting with the 15-12 win in the 1995 final at Johannesburg, one of the most enduring matches in sport.
The Springboks led 12-7 at halftime, with Handre Pollard landing four goals from four attempts, but didn't adapt to the rain in the second half and lacked experience in game management.
From where they were after their first game, though, coach Heyneke Meyer said the Springboks had developed a core group of young players like Pollard and centres Damian de Allende and Jesse Kriel who would one day be "world beaters."
"I don't think any people gave us any chance," he said. "But the guys came through and the youngsters really matured. It will never be good enough if I coach South Africa to come close and not win. We had a chance and we didn't take it. We should have been in the final."