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'Hopefully Julian Savea never runs at me, that will be mildly terrifying!'

Schalk Burger has been in superb form ahead of South Africa’s World Cup semi-final against New Zealand.

Murray Kinsella reports from Twickenham

PLAYING AGAINST NEW Zealand is a special thing for the Burger family.

During the apartheid years, when international rugby sides were condemned for playing against South Africa, ‘The Cavaliers’ braved the backlash and undertook a 12-match tour that included four Tests against the Springboks.

Schalk Burger and Luke Charteris Burger's old man played against the Cavaliers. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

It was a hugely controversial tour, with the Cavaliers’ 30-man squad made up of existing New Zealand internationals including Robbie Deans, Wayne Smith, Murray Mexted and Grant Fox. Basically, an unofficial and unsanctioned All Blacks team.

Schalk Burger was only three at the time, but his father – also Schalk – packed down for South Africa in the second row against the Cavaliers.

Burger, the son, took up the mantle when he became a Springbok in 2003 and has relished every chance he has had to take on the Kiwis since. Tomorrow in Twickenham is even more special than usual, a World Cup semi-final.

“I think the rivalry is unique,” said Burger this afternoon after the Boks’ captain’s run. “I grew up watching South Africa play the All Blacks, but this is a massive game for us, the current generation.

It’s such a small part of the history between the two nations, so what’s quite remarkable is that we all respect each other, we’re all friends.”

New Zealand coach Steve Hansen yesterday stated that he believes the Boks are ready to rip his players’ heads off, those comments drawing a smile from Burger this morning.

“Not at the moment, maybe tomorrow,” said the flanker. “It’s a physical game and we pride ourselves on that, so do they. We’ve got different styles but it’s pretty similar. We both want to go out there and play rugby, that’s what makes it such an exciting game.”

There is a relaxed vibe around Burger, an ease in his communication and a slightly sarcastic but self-depreciating humour. Having come close to death just two years ago, you sense that he is more than capable of keeping rugby in perspective.

Matthew Rees tackles Schalk Burger Burger played against the Lions in 2009, infamously gouging Luke Fitzgerald. Source: SPORTZPICS/Ron Gaunt/INPHO

Yesterday, the 32-year-old was out playing golf with his father, South African billionaire Johann Rupert and fellow Bok Schalk Brits. Several of Meyer’s squad visited Chelsea’s plush Cobham Training Centre this morning, although the grizzled back row left the younger players to that.

Whatever about his relaxed state, there is a certainty that Burger will bring his usual dose of aggression to Twickenham tomorrow for the latest clash with the Kiwis. His form in this World Cup has been superb since the opening defeat to Japan, Burger carrying, passing, supporting, rucking and leading with excellence.

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“It didn’t start too rosy for us, this World Cup,” said Burger. “Obviously the weeks after that, Samoa and Scotland, was the toughest we’ve had as a group together. A lot of the credit goes to the coaching staff, but especially the senior players.

“I think they took ownership of the team and obviously the only way you can take ownership of the team is by playing well. I think all the senior players have put their hands up and have been playing really well.

On my own form, I’m just enjoying my rugby. It’s really nice to be in a Springbok jersey. A couple of years ago there was no chance of me getting back in here, so it’s lovely to get another chance to play.”

Tomorrow also presents Burger with a final chance to face another veteran of the Test arena, Richie McCaw. This pair have given everything to their nations in the pursuit of success and Burger respects the Kiwi captain.

“We’ve become good mates,” said Burger. “We’ve played against each other since 2003, so there’s been a fair few contests and unfortunately I’ve been on the losing end most of the time. Hopefully for me, we can get a win over them tomorrow and it will give me some bragging rights for future days to come.

“He’s won more Test matches than I’ve played, so we can’t really compare. It’s almost like trying to compare to Tiger Woods, it’s pretty tough.

Schalk Burger celebrates with fans Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“On the field, we’re equals. We play a bit of a different style, but both of us have massive work rates, so we find each other on the bottom of rucks or tackling each other, carrying the ball a hell of a lot.

“I always try to make a bit of a chat on the field, it’s pretty difficult to do with Richie, but after we’ll share a beer and reminisce about days gone by.”

If Burger can help the Boks get the better of the back row battle and the breakdown contest, the likes of Willie le Roux and Bryan Habana will hope to prosper.

Habana needs just one more try to move past Jonah Lomu and their joint record of 15 World Cup five pointers, while on the Kiwis’ side Julian Savea needs one more to shift past Habana and Lomu’s record of eight tries in a single World Cup.

Hopefully Julian never runs at me,” said Burger with a smile. “That will be mildly terrifying to say the least! Hopefully JP Pietersen can keep him quiet.

“On Bryan, what can you say? He’s scored 64 tries for South Africa, he’s the most capped back we’ve had and he’s on 15 World Cup tries. I know Drew Mitchell is catching up quite fast and Julian has scored eight in this World Cup.

“Hopefully if we do our job we can get Bryan some space and he gets the record. He had a chance against America and fluffed that one, so hopefully he doesn’t fluff the one on the weekend.”

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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