Cheetahs flier Philip Burger is emerging as one of the most exciting players in Super rugby this year. But most are surprised when they learn that this try-scoring machine has already been around the block.
Philip Burger was on his way to joining the legion of players who start with promise but never take that extra step to the next level.
After starting out his career playing for Free State Under-19, Burger shuffled between various smaller unions such as the Eagles and the Pumas, playing mostly Vodacom Cup rugby, but a return to the Cheetahs has re-ignited a sparkling career.
“After I started at Free State there were just no opportunities for me. So I packed my bags and headed for the smaller unions. That is how I learnt my rugby.
“But Bloemfontein was always home, and, when I decided to return, Rassie Erasmus [Cheetahs coach] decided to give me a go with the Cheetahs.
“Rassie was the only guy who ever believed in me.’
What could have ended up as a slow death to a journeyman career was turned into a new beginning.
“I don’t think I am playing that much better than I did four years ago. I have just finally been given the opportunity.”
After a slow fight into the Cheetahs starting lineup in last year’s Currie Cup, Burger demonstrated his try-scoring ability by ending the competition as the top try-scorer – despite only starting in four matches.
“It was a fight for a starting position. In the first instance, I had to prove myself. And when I did, I left the coach with no choice but to select me.”
And one gets the impression that this is how Burger plans to advance his career. Just simply leave the critics with no choice but to acknowledge the talent.
After a barnstorming Currie Cup, Burger was chosen for the South African Sevens side, where he has enjoyed great success again.
“Sevens has taught me a great deal about rugby. I have learnt to attack space, and it has also given me a great deal of confidence. Your defence is also something that can only improve when you play Sevens.”
Never was his sense of space more vivified than when he turned the Waratahs defence inside out when he ran in a try from a backline move off first phase possession – a rarity in the South African game.
Burger also showed that he is equally at home at fullback.
“My favoured position is right wing, but nowadays wings and fullbacks all need to be able to play the same game.”
Burger’s pilgrimage away from Bloemfontein and subsequent return means he is ideally positioned to note what it is that has taken the Cheetahs from under-achievers to world beaters in a matter of years.
“I don’t think you can say it is all down to Rassie, but he has made a big difference to our rugby. The most important thing he has done is given the guys a belief in themselves.
“We play for each other, and we play as a team.
“In rugby it is no use having three or four superstars and leaving it at that. Everybody needs to play their part.”
Burger is now 27 years old. In the modern game it is the teenagers who are usually described as the emerging talents. Burger is, by his own admission, something of a late bloomer.
“I am like my dad (father Thys played for Northern Transvaal and South Africa on the flank). He also only broke into Currie Cup rugby when he was 26 or 27.
“I think I have grown stronger as I have become a little older. A guy like Richardt Strauss was able to play Currie Cup rugby while he was still at school. I was not ready when I was 19.
“My development has also meant I have been free of injuries, and I have never had to have an operation.”
Following in father Thys’s footsteps in becoming a Springbok, is “the dream” for the younger Philip.
“It is a dream and a goal. But it is not everything. If I don’t make it, I won’t be down. At the moment I am doing well for the Cheetahs, and that is enough.”
Burger is brimming full of the steady confidence with which the Cheetahs have conducted themselves this year.
“We have some aspects of our game that we need to work on, such as issues in the line-out as well as our defence.
“But like we showed in the first twenty minutes against the Waratahs, when we click, we are unstoppable.
“It is still early days, but if we can maintain that for sixty minutes a game, there are not many sides that will be able to beat us.”