Schalk Burger (Gallo Images)
Johannesburg – Veteran forward Schalk Burger hailed the “gutsy” Springboks on Tuesday after they returned to South Africa from the 2015 Rugby World Cup in England.
“A lesser group would have fallen apart,” he said of the team that came third behind New Zealand and Australia after being stunned 34-32 by Japan in their opening pool game.
The downing of the twice world champions by the second-tier rugby nation was the greatest upset in the 29-year global showpiece.
“We showed tremendous guts to claw our way back and finish as bronze medallists,” said the 32-year-old flank at the OR Tambo airport in Johannesburg.
South Africa lost by two points to eventual champions New Zealand in an epic semi-final, then beat Argentina comfortably in the third place play-off.
Burger, a veteran of four World Cup tournaments, is among senior players expected to retire from Test rugby.
Coach Heyneke Meyer reiterated that the team had a great future and that he hoped to have his contract renewed in December for another four years.
“We have some great youngsters coming through,” said the 47-year-old handler, whose future will be decided at a December 4 South African Rugby Union (SARU) meeting.
Centres Jesse Kriel and Damian de Allende, flyhalf Handre Pollard, prop Frans Malherbe and lock Lood de Jager were emerging Springboks who impressed at the World Cup.
Public and media opinion is divided over Meyer with those favouring him arguing that he should carry on for the sake of continuity.
The coach has received the public backing of SARU president Oregan Hoskins.
“Heyneke is the most professional coach I have worked with,” he said.
“We cannot rebuild the team every four years and lose so much intellectual property.
“In retrospect, maybe we should have stuck with coaches in the past. I do not want to keep repeating the cycle.”
Jake White did not have his contract renewed despite winning the 2007 World Cup and the first black Springboks coach, Peter de Villiers, suffered a similar fate after a quarter-final exit four years later.
Opponents of Meyer point to one win in eight matches against arch-rivals New Zealand since he succeeded De Villiers.
His obsessively physical and uncreative tactics at the World Cup have also come under fire, as has his failure to racially transform the one-time exclusively white Springboks.
Set a target by SARU and the South African sports ministry of seven blacks in each match-day 23 this year, Meyer often chose just four.
“Our team was representative and I sleep well at night,” said Meyer.
Ninety percent of South Africans are black and the government wants the popular national rugby team to be 50 percent black by the 2019 World Cup in Japan.