The Big Interview: Schalk Burger talks South Africa, Saracens and vineyards
When all is said and done, Schalk Burger will return to South Africa a hero.
Renowned as one of the finest flankers of his day, he has followed in his father’s footsteps and worn the famous Springbok jersey 86 times, winning the World Cup in 2007 and being named International Player of the Year in 2004.
But, aged 35, his mind is no longer solely focussed on rugby and trophies.
Since breaking through aged 19, Burger’s career has been varied. He spent 12 years at the Stormers, two at Suntory Sungoliath and since 2016 has been a regular in Mark McCall’s Saracens side – winning the Champions Cup and, last year, the Premiership Rugby Final.
However, he is now in the twilight of his career and the question facing him is a familiar one to any player nearing the end. What to do next?
Luckily, Burger has the answer – but only if his family agrees.
— Saracens Rugby Club (@Saracens) September 7, 2018
Deep in the heart of Wellington, near Cape Town, likes Welbedacht, a farm his father bought in 1997. On it, and on another farm he bought in 1995, Schalk Sr built a vineyard and the family grow around 1000 tonnes of grapes per year.
“That’s the plan, to go back to Cape Town,” Burger said.
“I’m a big wine drinker. At the minute everyone’s working on the farm and I’m just drinking what they’re producing. When I finish, it will be time to muck in.
“I love it. It’s awesome out there. The old man and the brother, they’re doing the hard yards there and I’m playing rugby, galivanting. I’m not sure they’ll want me back!
“I’ve been playing rugby all over the world for the last 16 years since 2002. I think they’re a bit envious of my lifestyle, I don’t know if they’re going to let me in that easy. I might have to buy my way back into the fold!
Burger’s father, known as Big Schalk, runs the operation while his brother and mother both work onsite and his sister, Ren, is head of sales. It’s an all-family affair.
But it’s not time for young Schalk to hang up the mouthguard just yet. The new Gallagher Premiership Rugby season may be just two weeks old but there is enough evidence to suggest it is going to be electric until the very end.
Exeter Chiefs lead the way, winning both of their matches with bonus points while Gloucester Rugby, invigorated by fly-half Danny Cipriani, Wasps, Harlequins and Bristol Bears have picked up eye-catching wins.
And then there are Saracens. With two games, two wins and a maximum ten points secured, Mark McCall’s men are, as ever, among the favourites for the Twickenham showpiece on June 1.
“I think if we have the culture, the right understanding of where people fit, how people are feeling then I think we’ll get it right again,” Burger added.
“I’m not saying we’ll win a trophy, but I think we’ll put ourselves in a position to win a trophy.
“This competition, especially the first 80% of the competition, there’s no disparity between your best teams and your worst teams.
“It’s only towards the end of the season when your squad is depleted, or they’ve had some issues or some changes in staff when you can put some teams away. Before that every game is brutally tough.”
Burger believes this could be his last season at Saracens – even if he points to compatriot and close friend Schalk Brits, who retired in May and then promptly played for South Africa against England in June, as an example of why you should never truly believe a player when they say it’s over.
If so, he has proven to be an inspired signing. In 2014, after 12 years in South Africa, he upped sticks and moved to Tokyo and the Suntory Sungoliath in search of a different way of life. A different experience.
That is why he also jumped at the chance to move to London in 2016 and has helped nurture the likes of Maro Itoje and Nick Isiekwe
“I got to the stage where I felt I needed a change,” he added.
“I came across and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it. Great culture, great club, the results are a bonus. I’ve come across for a different experience.
“Coming across to play rugby in England is completely different to playing rugby in Japan or playing rugby in South Africa in the southern hemisphere where you play in good weather about 95% of the time, you travel halfway around the world twice a year and you spend five months away from home every year.
“So, it’s completely different. It’s been really good for my family. My kids are full British, they’ve learnt to write in England.
“So, when you walk through London, you hear a Dad screaming Afrikaans and he’s getting full British back you know it must be me!”
Now Brits has gone, Burger is the oldest man in the squad but that won’t slow him down this year. There is a hunger at Saracens after losing their Champions Cup crown last year.
They have started the new season like a train and intend for it to stay that way. For now, at least, Burger is squelching opponents, not grapes.