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Iron men of rugby

Liam Messam

Schalk Burger and Jerry Collins

I have taken my fair share of knocks on the field. You don’t get through almost two decades of professional rugby without copping a cheap shot here and there and, to be fair, dishing out the odd one yourself.

Dan Carter said that South African loosie Schalk Burger was the toughest player he’s ever faced on the rugby field and it’s hard to argue with that. That guy has zero fear and zero care for his body – he would just fly into things.

I have taken my fair share of knocks on the field. You don’t get through almost two decades of professional rugby without copping a cheap shot here and there and, to be fair, dishing out the odd one yourself.

Dan Carter said that South African loosie Schalk Burger was the toughest player he’s ever faced on the rugby field and it’s hard to argue with that. That guy has zero fear and zero care for his body – he would just fly into things.

When I’m on the park, I always want to test myself against the biggest and the strongest guys and although there might be some monsters playing in the loosies now, no one could hit you harder than Schalk Burger.

I think in many ways he was sort of like the spiritual and emotional leader for the Springboks. He may not have made all the calls on the field, but he led those boys into battle. You could see when he put in a huge hit or made a crazy run that it would lift the whole team – and he was able to do that pretty often.

I’ve played against guys that are obviously physically tough but weren’t necessarily mentally tough. Burger didn’t have that problem – that man is a freak in all the right ways.

DC said he felt like he had a target on his back whenever he played against Burger but I can tell you that Burger wasn’t afraid of causing some collateral damage and if you saw his name on the team sheet before a game, you knew you were going to be hurting the next day.

Honestly though, he’s the nicest bloke off the field. I remember one match we were playing against the Springboks, I hit him high near the end of the game and South Africa kicked a penalty to steal the win. I was pretty dark after the final whistle but he was the first one that came up to me and told me not to dwell on it – it’s rugby and sometimes stuff like that happens. I felt like a right prick at the time because I’d lost us the test match but he gave me a few words of encouragement to keep my chin up.

RG Snyman
RG Snyman gets better acquainted with Dane Coles (Photo by Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images)

The South Africans though, I don’t know what it is but there’s something about them. They’re all great guys off the pitch but when you’re on the field, they want to hurt you.

A few years ago, RG Snyman managed to break my nose and finger at the same time. We’d had a bit of a scuffle off the ball and a few phases later I was lining up for a carry. He was a few men inside me so I could only really see him out of the corner of my eye but he saw me and just bee-lined straight towards me.

I was like, ‘Nah, surely not – he’s not going to go that far out of his way to hit me?’. But he absolutely did – he came on the angle at me, and I tried to put a shoulder on him but it didn’t stop him at all. He absolutely smashed me, busted my nose and my finger. Moments like that stick with you and I’ll always have one eye on him whenever we play.

Physically, you always want to test where you are as a player and where you are as a team by playing the South Africans. That’s their style and that’s what won them the World Cup. You know you’re going to come up against some big units and they don’t exactly hide what their game plan is going to be – they’re going to maul, they’re going to run it straight, they’re going to smash you. 

I’ve played against guys that are obviously physically tough but weren’t necessarily mentally tough. Burger didn’t have that problem – that man is a freak in all the right ways.

Closer to home, I was always impressed by the Hurricanes loosies growing up.

I would only have been 21 or 22, playing against Wellington, and their loose forwards were Jerry Collins, Chris Masoe and Rodney So’oialo – which was pretty damn scary at the time.

I’d already met Rodney at a sevens camp and I remember when he came over to say hello to me, his legs were just like something else, I couldn’t stop staring – but JC was an even bigger beast.

I held JC back at one of the first scrums and then next minute, boom! He smacked me right on the nose and said, ‘don’t ever do that again’. I was a bit of a cheeky young fella but you’re not going to argue when Jerry Collins tells you off. He obviously had a big reputation and he used to hit like a freight train.

I was never lucky enough to be a teammate of his – his last game for the All Blacks was in 2007, the year before I first made the team, but I was always playing against him.

Later on in my career, Jerome Kaino took over that enforcer role for New Zealand. Thankfully, sometimes we actually were on the same team but I always enjoyed playing against him too because he was the best of the best.

Richie McCaw
Messam rated Richie McCaw’s durability very highly (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

If I could tackle Jerome and bring him down without him managing to carry me for a couple of metres, I knew I was doing a pretty good job.

We became really good teammates when we were in the All Blacks together and we used to put on a united front to try and convince Richie McCaw to let us wear white boots.

One year, me and Jerome were the only forwards in the squad to play in white boots in a game down in Dunedin. We ran out onto the field and Skip just looked at us, looked down at our boots and back up at us – he didn’t have to say anything, we knew he wasn’t happy.

I think Steve Hansen might have said something to us after the game too, because that was the only time we wore white – we went back to the black boots after that.

One year, me and Jerome were the only forwards in the squad to play in white boots in a game down in Dunedin. We ran out onto the field and Skip just looked at us

I wear white boots now but that’s because I’m sure it makes me look faster.

Although he might not have the best taste in boots, Richie was also an incredibly tough guy to be playing with or against. He’s physically tough, sure, but the amount of abuse he used to take on the field was just unreal. It just washed off him though, he didn’t seem to be affected by it at all.

If it were me, I’d be in a rage and chasing people around the park but skip would take it on the chin like it was nothing. I guess when you’re so used to it, you probably get a lot better at dealing with it.

But even the tough buggers are good blokes off the field – you can always have a laugh after a game. I’ve been around long enough now to know that all the players are really good, genuine people. What happens on the field, stays on the field and I’ve only had good encounters off the field, so I know it’s just a part of being a competitive professional.