It would have been very easy for Schalk Burger to call it a day in 2016.

Back then he was coming towards the end of his time in Japan with Suntory Sungoliath and few would have denied the flanker his right to bow out after a glittering career.

Burger was already a world champion by then, he had been voted World Rugby Player of the Year in 2004 and he was the most-capped flanker in South Africa’s history.

Throw into the mix the fact that the 34-year-old’s family run their own vineyard in South Africa and retirement seems like an even more attractive option.

However, the chance to join Saracens and with it get a crack at European rugby was too much for Burger to turn down.

“It’s a tough season over here, the easy option would have been to finish over in Japan,” he says. “It’s a massive challenge, physically and mentally — it’s a long season. All the teams in the Prem — so many are tough to beat.

“Then Europe is the icing on the cake, when you are playing big French teams, superstars in the Irish teams, it’s very tough to win in Wales — for two years we have found that out. I think it was refreshing for me to do something other than Super Rugby. I did that for long enough. It’s a tough challenge but one I really enjoy.”

And the challenges don’t come much tougher than tomorrow’s Champions Cup quarter-final with Leinster in Dublin. They have been the form team so far in this season’s competition and everyone at Saracens is aware of the scale of the task ahead.

However, it is exactly matches like this that made Burger shun the opportunity to hang up his boots in Japan.

The flanker has played in huge games throughout his career from World Cup finals to Tri-Nations deciders, and tomorrow’s clash he insists is just as big as any Test match.

“These are the games we all want to be play in,” Burger says. “It’s nice. It’s a new challenge and it doesn’t get much bigger. It’s going to be a big turnout at the Aviva. I think you spend so much time at your franchise or over here at your club. You invest so much emotional time and energy in it so when the big game comes across for your club it’s one of the most important.

“This season has had its challenges. Dublin this weekend is another of those challenges.

“Leinster are an exceptional side, playing really great football and have dominated Europe this season with ease if you look at the results.

“We are the type of team that embraces these sort of challenges. We’re all super-exited about it.”

Ireland and Irish rugby has been no stranger to Burger over the years. Nor, for that matter, has Dublin.

“I like Dublin as a city,” he admits. “You can’t travel away too much here [at Saracens]. Mostly, it’s just up and down on a bus. I quite like sleeping out for a night. We’ve got a Saturday night in Dublin, but we can’t do too much.

“Over the years I’ve learned where the good Guinness runs are so… don’t tell Mark McCall this but I might sneak into a quiet place at some stage.

“They do Guinness a lot better than they do down in Cape Town. It definitely tastes better in Dublin.”

They will taste even sweeter if Saracens can defeat Leinster. Burger has played against Irish players many times in the past and one thing that has always struck him is their physicality.

In the flanker’s eyes it is a quality that can often be overlooked by opponents and supporters who, just like in this year’s Six Nations, have their eyes drawn towards Ireland’s creativity and skill in the backs.

“We have always battled against Ireland,” he says.

“South Africa doesn’t have the best of records against Ireland if you compare our record with say, for example, against other home unions or European teams.

“Obviously under the current guidance of Joe Schmidt they have become a serious rugby team. I think this Six Nations showed that.

“How much effort they put into preparation obviously, they are an intelligent team; they have got good playmakers all around.

“And I think what everyone underestimates is how physical they are because you always see the beautiful tries or set pieces, which I think have become a hallmark, or the cross kicks or the chips in behind, how they find space.

“But I think all of them are super physical and I think that is where it starts this weekend for us.”

After winning the Champions Cup last season during his first year with Saracens, Burger has unsurprisingly enjoyed his time in England – even if the weather hasn’t quite been to his taste.

“It’s been one heck of a spring. Outstanding,” he quips. “My Apple Weather says it’s raining for the next 8 days. I’ve never played so little golf in my life! Besides that it’s been lovely, a great club, big challenge.”

So is Burger ready to call it a day then at the end of this season? “It looks like I’m going to do one more year, until June 2019,” he says. “One more.”

And then, finally, Burger admits it may well be time for a well-earned rest at the family vineyard.


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