Major teams: Western Province, Stormers
Country: South Africa
Test span: 2003-2015
Test caps: 86 (72 starts)
Test points: 80 (16T)
Rugby’s Greatest: Schalk Burger
Many northern hemisphere supporters simply cannot forgive Schalk Burger for his scuffle with Lions wing Luke Fitzgerald in the opening minute of the second Test at Loftus Versfeld in 2009.
During the fracas – one of many that punctuated a savage series – South Africa’s flanker made contact with the eyes of the Irishman. Touchjudge Bryce Lawrence saw everything, and communicated proceedings to French referee Christophe Berdos. The upshot was only a yellow card.
Burger returned to the field with the Lions 10-0 up. His raw intensity aided the Springboks in a gargantuan gain-line battle full of fearful collisions. As the hosts fought back to win 28-25 with Morné Steyn’s last-second kick, he racked up 11 tackles, second only to Juan Smith.
Appropriately, the blond bombshell exploded into public consciousness. Graduating from the renowned rugby nurseries of Paarl Gimnasium and Stellenbosch University, Burger was part of the 2002 South Africa U21 side that won the World Championship.
The next year he broke into the Western Province team and made three replacement appearances at the World Cup in Australia, scoring a try on senior international debut as Georgia were dispatched 46-19.
When Jake White took the reins in 2004 he unleashed the gap-toothed, grinning youngster from the start, stood back and ogled at the effects. South Africa took the Tri-Nations for the first time in six seasons. Hurtling into rucks and runners alike, Burger won IRB Player of the Year aged 21.
He would drive the Springboks to World Cup glory in 2007 as well, though this would be sandwiched between two serious setbacks – a neck injury that required cervical fusion surgery in 2006 and a life-threatening bout of bacterial meningitis in 2013.
New Zealand legend Sean Fitzpatrick attributed Burger’s remarkable recovery to his “fighting spirit”. Either side of the touchline, undiluted tenacity has served him well.