St. Albans is a city district just outside London which lies east of Hemel Hempstead and west of Hatfield, about 19 miles north-north west of London.
In Roman times the town was a common destination for travellers heading north on the old Roman road of Watling Street, so it’s kind of fitting that today it is now the new home of Springbok flanker Schalk Burger, a man who is fully embracing the travel opportunities afforded to the modern rugby player.
After spending his entire career on South Africa’s Western Cape with the Stormers and the Western Province, Burger was accustomed to a certain type of routine: play for the Stormers in Super Rugby, represent the Western Province in the Currie Cup and answer the call of the Springboks every summer and autumn.
A life threatening battle with bacterial meningitis in 2013 disrupted that routine, but it also gave the 33-year-old a new lease of life, as the following year Burger signed a two-year deal with five-time Japanese champions the Suntory Sungoliaths.
After two successful seasons splitting time between playing for the Sungoliaths in Japan and the Stormers in Super Rugby, Burger wanted a change, and soon found a new home in north London with Aviva Premiership champions Saracens.
“I think part of me always wanted to go overseas,” Burger told Pundit Arena.
“Obviously when you’re younger you want to play as many matches as you can for the Springboks, that’s where you set your goals, you want to be a Springbok for many, many years. I’ve been fortunate enough to do that but then I think you get to a stage where you need to change.
“I’ve been playing Super Rugby for a long, long time and Saracens have been knocking on the door in previous years, so when the chance came I thought it would be a good trip for me and my family to come across here.
“I think I’m in the right frame of mind as well in my career to be over here, obviously it’s just started here but so far it’s been wonderful.”
Schalk’s wife Michele and their two sons, Schalk Jnr. and Nicol, will join Burger at the end of the month when the two boys finish their school year back home in South Africa.
The transition from the Western Cape to London has been seamless for Burger who has really only established two things during his time so far in London – the bed in his house and his position as an openside flanker in the Saracens Wolf Pack.
Burger says he is still very much in the process of unpacking a myriad of boxes at his new home in St. Albans, and while it may take some time for him and his family to adjust to their new surroundings, the 33-year-old is having no problem adjusting to life in the Aviva Premiership, scoring a try on his competitive debut for Saracens during the club’s 35-3 win over Worcester on Saturday at Twickenham.
The former Springboks captain looked really comfortable in his first full 80 minutes of rugby for the defending champions and showed his full array of ball carrying and distribution skills in the champion’s opening day win.
But before joining the reigning European champions over the summer, Burger was asked in an interview in Cape Town if he was heading to Europe to collect his ‘rugby pension’, a financial reward after 13 loyal years of service in South African Rugby.
The Port Elizabeth native doesn’t see it that way, so much so that he decided to put his international career on hold to focus on establishing himself at his new club.
“I haven’t announced that I’m going to retire [from international rugby] yet because I think there could still be some opportunities there in the future, but again my focus is with Saracens,” added Burger.
“That’s where it is and you know it’s about settling in here, and playing well here, and I think you have to earn your respect here, and a way of doing that is by playing for the club and putting in the hours.
“But with regards to the Springboks, maybe in the future. I’m pretty good mates with everyone involved there and I played there for a long, long time.
“I know a lot of the younger players as well because I still played Super Rugby this year so at the moment the answer is no.
“The Springboks are battling a little bit at the moment and they’ve got a tough trip coming up so hopefully they can can change things and quickly turn it around.”
The Boks have three wins and two losses under new coach Allister Coetzee and are going through a bit of a transition period after losing a host of leaders including Burger, Fourie Du Preez, Victor Matfield and Jean De Villiers from last year’s Rugby World Cup squad.
The Springboks’ shaky start under Coetzee won’t be helped by the news that current captain Adriaan Strauss plans to retire from international rugby at the end of this year.
Strauss took over the captaincy from Du Preez in May, following the appointment of Coetzee in April, and while Burger insists that whoever takes over from Strauss should be playing their rugby in South Africa, he also feels that the player must be able to take on commitments that are bigger than rugby.
“There’s a lot of demands on you as Springboks captain,” said Burger.
“Not only playing for South Africa and trying to win test matches, but I think that there’s also a massive social stance that you’ve got to take into consideration.
“I think that when you’re Springboks captain you make a serious commitment because you got to give away a lot of yourself. You can’t be selfish and focus solely on the game because there’s other commitments you have.
“We are a Republic country down in South Africa and if you look at what rugby did for the country in 1995, that basically galvanised the whole country.
“Later on in 2007 when we won the World Cup it was a little bit different. There wasn’t as big as a political influence, it was basically just a group of blokes being the best in the world.
“I think at the moment the country is moving past that. It’s got a big political side to it but people just want to see the Springboks do well. When the Springboks do well, our economy seems to do a little bit better, our beer tastes better, our wine sells a little bit more, but it’s a tough position being Springboks captain.
“Adriaan Strauss will be making his retirement at the end of the year so let’s hope he does well in the remaining tests for this year.”
Burger is not a qualified economist but he does know a thing or two about the Springboks doing well, tasting beer and selling wine.
“I’m old school,” Burger said after I asked him about his post-match recovery habits.
“I still enjoy a few beers after games, so I guess I’m a bit old school like that, but I don’t get to lie in as much anymore on Sunday because I’m up quite early with two kids.”
Family seems to be a recurring theme in Burger’s life with his wife Michele on hand during both the ups and downs of Burger’s career.
The backrower turned businessman also runs a family wine operation with his father Schalk Sr., who also happens to be a former Springbok, as well as his brother Tiaan, who runs the cellar’s marketing operations.
The father and son-run business operates out of Wellington, one of the Cape’s most picturesque wine regions and a potential retreat for Burger and his family after his esteemed rugby career comes to an end.
However, the former IRB Player of the Year hasn’t ruled out staying in the game either, admitting that he’d be open to a coaching role in the future but that he’ll make that decision when the time comes.
“I’m not too sure,” Burger replied when asked about his post-playing career.
“I think it would be quite an easy transition to go from rugby into coaching, but I think you got to sit down with your family and discuss it, because your lifestyle doesn’t really change when you go from being a player to a coach.
“You’re pretty busy and have a lot of pressure on the weekend. There’s a big part of me that wants to stay involved and be a part of the game, but there’s also a massive part of me that actually just wants to be a fan, and enjoy my weekends, and enjoy watching rugby and challenge myself in a different phase of life.
“I don’t know but I’ll make that decision when I get there.”
Overcoming challenges has been a recurring feature of both Burger’s career, and indeed his life, so transitioning from rugby to retirement shouldn’t be an issue for a man that could quite easily swap shaking hands at Twickenham to shaking wine glasses in a different type of Wellington, one that is far away from the cauldrons of rugby.
Burger spoke to Pundit Arena as part of Premiership Rugby and the 12 Aviva Premiership rugby clubs’ support towards the Aviva Community Fund – a nationwide initiative which offers funding of up to £25,000 to grassroots sports clubs and other community organisations close to your heart.
Enter at aviva.co.uk/community-fund from 13 September.
Jack O’Toole, Pundit Arena
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