Silver Fern Karin Burger will watch the Commonwealth Games with her leg in a cast, but the outstanding defender is dead-set on returning for the World Cup defence in her native South Africa, she tells Merryn Anderson.
For the past year, Karin Burger had been nursing an undiagnosable niggle in her foot - all part of being a professional athlete, the star Silver Ferns defender thought.
Little did she know one awkward landing would result in six months away from the sport she loves, and rule her out of next month's Commonwealth Games in Birmingham.
In the final game of the Tactix season against eventual ANZ Premiership champions the Pulse, Burger came down badly on her right foot. She describes that moment as “the last straw”, unable to work through the pain she’d been managing until then.
“Everybody kept doing as much as they could to try and figure out what the issue was so it’s not like there was a lack of effort in that area," she says. "Nothing showed up until we did the scans after the last game."
Those scans revealed the injury was a fracture in her navicular bone, which will require surgery to heal. Now the 29-year-old defender is hoping to return to the Ferns environment by December.
Despite the blow, Burger is staying positive and is determined to come out of this setback fitter and stronger than before - especially with the next Netball World Cup being held in her homeland of South Africa next year.
“It’s so frustrating for everybody that we couldn’t pick up on anything earlier to prevent anything. But everybody did as much as they possibly could. It is what it is, no-one’s to blame,” she says.
Burger is also taking that mindset with her as she prepares for six to eight weeks in a cast, unable to join the Silver Ferns on their journey to Commonwealth Games redemption.
A sure selection for the pinnacle event, her unavailability leaves the Ferns a lot lighter on defence. And the dynamic 33-test player is obviously disappointed.
“I’m not the kind to think about something and think ‘what if’. It’s the situation I’m in so it’s important for me to look ahead," she says.
“I had my weekend to cry about it and get through it.”
The surgery involves putting a screw through the bone to fix the crack, and shaving off a bit of bone to prevent a clash against any other bones - which could create another fracture. Once her time in the cast is over, then rehab starts.
“Then it’s just about recovering all the muscle I would have lost and the fitness I would have lost by that point,” Burger explains.
“As much as I’d like to take the court as soon as the cast is off, there’s also a lot of dangers in that, in going to any competitive stuff undercooked. So it’s important to get the ankle mobility back, the fitness and the strength back up and running.”
Burger is hoping to return in time for the Silver Ferns trials in December, but light-heartedly says she could be available for FAST5 World Series in Christchurch in November if things go well.
For the athletic defender who hates sitting still, she’s already researched ways to cover the cast while swimming, and planned seated boxing for cardio and upper body workouts while she recovers from surgery.
“I’m quite excited to focus on the things I can do that are non-netball related. And also working on my body to get it up and running and fit and healthy and mobile and strong - specifically going into another pinnacle event next year, and making sure I don’t have niggles,” Burger says.
“I can’t remember the last time I didn't have niggles, so it’s the perfect time to work on those little things. I try not to dwell too much on the negative and keep going.”
Burger played every second of the Tactix’ disappointing 2022 ANZ Premiership season, mostly at goal defence.
The Tactix finished bottom of the table this year, with just five wins - a stark contrast to last year where they lost in the grand final to the Mystics by only two goals.
“I love being on court so regardless of what the score is going to be, I just want to be able to play netball,” Burger says. She was without her defensive partner of Jane Watson this year, who welcomed her first child, Tia, in May.
“Sometimes you’re gonna enjoy the game and sometimes you’re not,” Burger says. “So it’s just about how you can make yourself enjoy it and find ways to enjoy it when it’s not going your way - I think that’s been a big challenge for me as well.”
For a player who has made the grand final of the ANZ Premiership every year since she’s been playing (winning back-to-back titles with the Pulse in 2019 and 2020), this season was definitely a change for the talented defender.
“It was a complete different experience for me, which I felt like I learnt quite a bit from," she says. "So I wouldn’t change anything cause everything happens for a reason."
While Burger is upbeat and positive talking about her injury, she's also trying not to think too much about missing the Commonwealth Games.
“Mentally, I need to try and distract myself, especially with the netball going on,’ she says. “As much as I want to support the girls, I know it’ll be hard for me to watch it, knowing I can’t be out there doing it as well. So it’ll be good to find some things to distract myself with off-court.”
She’s hoping to be able to make the trip back home to South Africa while in recovery, the last time she saw her family was before Covid. But she also has support in Christchurch and Wellington.
“Rehab for me is my key priority at the moment so I need to put myself where it’s going to be best for me. So whatever that looks like and we’ll work from there,” Burger says, noting overseas travel can still be difficult with Covid - which she impressively managed to avoid this season.
Burger made her Silver Ferns debut in September 2018, and has amassed 33 test caps since then, including a handful as part of the victorious 2019 Netball World Cup team.
Being part of a Ferns team defending their world title is high on Burger’s netball bucket list, especially when it's held in Cape Town.
“Growing up, wherever I went, regardless of what sport I did, there was always support on the sidelines, especially Mum and Dad,” says Burger, who moved from South Africa to New Zealand as an 18-year-old.
There won't be a lack of support for New Zealand in the crowd - Burger’s parents, siblings, wider family, friends and old school teachers all supporting her from afar at the moment, but eager to see her play in person in the black dress.
“Having my people in the crowd will be the biggest thing for me to look forward to,” Burger admits, as well as playing in familiar surroundings.
Twenty-seven Silver Ferns triallists enter camp on Monday, with the team to compete in Birmingham named on June 27.
Burger is eager to point out fans don’t see who performs well at camp, and coach Dame Noeline Taurua considers all players at trials, so all 27 could be in with a chance of making the final playing 12.
As for who Burger predicts will get the nod in the defensive end?
“It’s always a tough one when people ask about selections,” she says. “I guess it depends on what happens in trials and the connections, cause Noels is quite big on not necessarily individual players playing well, but how they gel within a group as well.
“Considering Sulu [Fitzpatrick] and Phoenix [Karaka] have that great connection already and they have been in the mix prior, you’d have to think they’re up there. And obviously Kelly’s [Jury] had an amazing season, and has been in the mix as well, so I guess those three would be three key players in the defensive end.”
She predicts the usual suspects of England and Australia will be New Zealand’s biggest competitors, with reigning Commonwealth champions England playing on home soil.
“But it’s going to depend on who their players are and their playing style, and what ours look like as well,” Burger guesses. “From experience, it’s the styles that are the difference and styles that are usually the downfall rather than the team itself.”
The 2023 ANZ Premiership will be key for players to stand out and put their hand up for World Cup selection. While Burger can’t announce where she’s signing yet, it seems she has unfinished business with the Tactix.
“I don’t like club hopping so that in itself is a big indicator for me. Regardless of the season we’ve had this year, I know there’s a lot of potential down here and I enjoy Christchurch, so that’s as much as I can say I guess,” she laughs.
With the potential return of Watson in the defensive circle, Burger is looking forward to spending more time domestically at wing defence. It's a position she frequently fills for the Ferns but has spent little time there for the Tactix this season.
“If the opportunity presents itself for me to do that, I think it’ll be quite nice to be able to just practise doing the switch on a regular basis and doing it seamlessly,” she says.
“I think that’s a key thing for me as well, because as confident as I feel in one position, if you don’t play the other one for too long then you sort of feel a bit uneasy about it. So it’s just making sure that when I do make the switches, I can play the best I possibly can. And being able to play both ways next year would be a good starter.”
While the rest of 2022 is undetermined, Burger’s still optimistic and determined to bounce back.
“I don’t know what the next six months are going to look like, and how I’m going to come out of it,” she says. “Obviously I’m going to think the most positive way I can and think I’m going to come back fitter and stronger than I went in.
“So if I can do that really well and hopefully put my hand up for the January tour [the Quad Series, also in South Africa] that’ll be a good starter.”
Burger is enthusiastic when asked if being selected for the 2023 World Cup defence would be a career highlight.
“Oh, 100 percent! Definitely having it in South Africa as well,” she says.
“Also, more so now that I’m not in Comm Games, I’m going to put even more effort and time into that because I refuse to miss out on another one.”