'It was stupid. You get things wrong" - Schalk Burger on that Luke Fitzgerald eye gouge
"In all seriousness, you know, I mean stupid. You get things wrong."
For Schalk Burger, it was a case of getting too fired up by the occasion and losing the run of himself. For the British & Irish Lions, it was a travesty of justice.
Back in June 2009, the Lions and the world champion Springboks were engaged in one of the most absorbing Test Series of modern times. The Boks had threatened to run away with the First Test before a rousing Lions comeback and two tight TMO calls saw them just about hold on for victory.
For the Second Test, at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria, the hosts welcomed back Schalk Burger into their team. The 2004 World Player of the Year was the best blindside in rugby, at the time, and would be earning his 50th Test cap in his hometown.
The first 20 seconds of the game went to plan, for South Africa, but their No.6 threatened to tear up the script with a dangerous eye gouge on Lions winger Luke Fitzgerald.
Burger joins House of Rugby Ireland hosts Ian Madigan and Eimear Considine this week [listen from 11:00 below] and speaks directly about that incident with Fitzgerald and how it changed him as a player.
During the course of his interview, Burger touches on some of his disciplinary issues in Test rugby. Even when he won the World Player of the Year award, in 2004, he picked up yellow cards, late in the year, for reckless tackles against Ireland and Wales.
At the 2007 World Cup, he was hit with a four-game suspension for a rough hit on Samoa's Junior Polu, during the group stages. That ban was reduced to two weeks, on appeal, and he was able to return and help his country to their second Webb Ellis trophy triumph.
"Whenever you make these mistakes, there’s no regrets, you can’t take them back, can you?" asks Burger. "But you definitely learn from them. You have to learn from them. You know, there’s been a few of those learnings in my career, and I’m sure you’ll get to a few others as this interview continues!"
Pressed on those 'few other' learnings by Considine, the 86-times capped Springbok replies, "Yeah, well obviously the 2009 Lions [Tout] comes next, doesn’t it?"
"What an experience for all of us," he adds. "We all remember watching in 1997. I think all of us can remember Scott Gibbs bouncing Os Du Randt – I think it was in Durban – and the Boks losing. 12 years later, we get our opportunity.
"You know, it’s more rare for us to play the Lions than it is for us to play in a World Cup. It’s one of those moments that’s rare. So ’09 came across. Jake White finished in 07/08, we had mixed success with Pieter De Villiers but, in ’09, I think we got a lot of things right, before the season started. There’s a lot of things where a new coach comes on-board – he’s got his ideas, he wants to change a stigma or way you play. But I think in ’07 (at the World Cup) we got a lot right.
"Then, in ’09, we were back on that track. I missed the First Test – I got injured in Super Rugby and missed the first one. Stranded on 49 and all I wanted to do was play my 50th Test match. In the First Test match, the Boks dominated the first 60 minutes of the game, then the Lions had a very good last 20.
"We knew the Second Test was going to be hard. The main focus was more of the same for us. So, obviously, dominate the set-pieces and physicality is non-negotiable. That would be the Lions team-talk. All about physicality.
"So, my 50th Test cap, a lot happening, family is up there. It was just one of those moments where, if you look back now, eye-gouge 10 seconds in… not even, five seconds into the game, Luke Fitzgerald. What was he doing in the ruck, by the way? I’m just joking."
After Stephen Jones kicked off for the Lions, Victor Matfield fielded the ball and the Springboks set up a maul that had the visitors under immediate pressure. Simon Shaw came in from an offside position to concede a penalty. As Shaw hit the deck, Fitzgerald dipped in to attempt a poach but was cleared out.
Burger got to grips with the Irish winger and rake at his eyes in the process:
The touch judge on the near sideline had a great view of the incident and immediately alerted French referee Christophe Berdos. "I've seen clearly, fingers in the eye area from 6 green (Burger)," Berdos was told.
The referee, perhaps as his touch judge did not firmly recommend a red card or that it was so early in the contest, opted to flash a yellow at Burger and he was off to the sin-bin for 10 minutes. Reflecting on the incident now, Burger says:
"In all seriousness, you know, I mean... stupid. You get things wrong.
"And, again, if you look back now it’s an over-hyped moment. Probably got a little bit too big. Because they made me laugh – where you’re going to enter the game and think, ‘Sh*t, I’m going to eye gouge someone’.
"You just over-step the mark through too much build-up, you want to make too big an impact, too soon. You know, these things happen."
For Burger, who brought the curtain down on his 16-year professional career in May 2019 by winning the European Cup with Saracens, he hopes the unsavoury eye-gouging episode 'does not detract too much from the fact that it was one of the best Test matches ever'.
The Lions were 22-18 ahead with 10 minutes to go but conceded a converted try and a late penalty to lose the Test, and with it the series. They were livid that Burger had not been sent off.
"That Second Test match delivered in spades and obviously culminated in Morné Steyn slotting a 60-metre penalty to win the match in a Test Series for South Africa," he says. "But it was a little bit bittersweet for me.
"I spent the following week just getting slated everywhere. And I got a little two-month sabbatical. I was banned for two months. But, yeah, it was one of those things. You get it wrong. There was no intention before the game. It’s just, you learn from those things."
Ultimately, it was found that Burger had been 'clearly reckless' with the rake across Fitzgerald's face while the South African protested, at the time, that he had no intention of going out to gouge an opponent.
"After that," Burger concludes, "you sit back and think, ‘Okay, hold on. Where are we going? What is the focus? Where should you move on?’ And whenever you lose big games or you make a big mistake, like I did, you come back a better player from that."
WATCH THAT EPISODE HERE:
SUBSCRIBE TO HOUSE OF RUGBY IRELAND: https://playpodca.st/house-of-rugby-ie
Season 3 has returned with Ian Madigan & Eimear Considine as hosts, and has already featured interviews with Brian O'Driscoll, Nigel Owens, Sean Cronin, Shane Williams, Mike Brown, CJ Stander, Ugo Monye, Sene Naoupu, Schalk Burger and Dan Leo.