Thu, 27 Jun 2019

Cape Town - Craig Burden last played professional rugby in South Africa all the way back in 2013.

A stalwart at the Sharks who would have had far more game time at Super Rugby and potentially Springbok level were it not for sharing a changeroom with Bismarck du Plessis, Burden left for France when he was 28-years-old.

He spent the next five years playing for Toulon, Montpellier and Stade Francais, won a European Cup along the way, and then decided it was time to come back home.

Burden, now 34, has signed with the Sharks for two seasons but hasn't featured in 2019 thanks to a torn bicep picked up in training just before week one of the tournament.

He is almost fully recovered now and is expecting to be back for the Sharks' clash against the Hurricanes in Durban on June 1.

A lot has changed in South Africa since Burden was last at the Sharks and he says there are only "three or four" players still involved at the union from when he was last there.

In 2013, Heyneke Meyer was in the second year of his term as Springbok coach.

So much has happened since then, including the Boks losing to Japan at the 2015 World Cup and two testing years under now-sacked national coach Allister Coetzee.

Along the way, South African franchises have also tried to evolve their game styles to keep up with the Kiwi teams in Super Rugby, though 2019 has seen them revert to more traditional methods.

Burden, though, has been hugely impressed with what he has seen upon his return.

"The level of rugby that we have here in South Africa is unbelievable," he told Sport24 at the Vodacom Red Track Day at Kyalami on Thursday.

"The professionalism has also improved a lot. Everything from training programmes to fitness schedules is incredibly in-depth and professional.

"I can only speak on behalf of the Sharks, but the training is extremely intense and the amount of talent that is on offer is impressive."

Based on that depth, Burden believes the Springboks have a shot at competing for honours at the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan under Rassie Erasmus.

"Our chances are very good," he said.

"If I look at the Springboks and the group of players and the number of players they have to select from, they have a lot of young talent but also some experienced guys like Duane (Vermeulen) and Beast (Mtawarira).

"To have that balance between the stability of experience but also the young energy is incredibly exciting.

"It's a dangerous balance for the teams that we're going to play against because we've got the best of both worlds.

"I think the Springboks are going to be right up there in contention in my opinion and I can't wait to watch and support the boys."

The Boks will begin their World Cup campaign when they take on defending champions New Zealand in Yokohama on September 21.

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