THE Bulls found themselves in a tight spot late last week ahead of their clash against the Crusaders when Springbok centre Jan Serfontein pulled out because of a hip injury not long before kick-off. Coach Frans Ludeke had to scratch his head to find a replacement, and Burger Odendaal was it.
Given that the 21-year-old inside centre had only just returned from a five-month injury lay-off from a broken arm and a knee injury and had never played Super Rugby, some may have thought it was a bit of a risk.
Odendaal was supposed to find his feet in the Vodacom Cup but was thrust into action against a star-studded Crusaders team at Loftus Versfeld.
“Jinne, I was actually very nervous beforehand. Growing up watching these guys on TV and then one day you wake up and you are playing against them. I think the guys (his teammates) helped me settle down and just kept me calm,” Odendaal said on Tuesday.
“It was a great match, I could not have asked to play a better side at Loftus than the Crusaders. It was a great experience. I’m just grateful for the win and a great game.”
Odendaal grabbed his opportunity with both hands and put in a performance for which he was unlucky not to snatch the man-of-the-match award away from flyhalf Handré Pollard.
Odendaal was excellent. He never looked out of his depth, ripping into the Crusaders as if he were playing them on Playstation. There was not a glimpse of nerves in his performance, which was marked by huge improvement from the player we saw in the Currie Cup last year. Then, he was keener on tucking the ball under his arm and trying to break defences on his own instead of putting other players away.
The Odendaal playing the Crusaders showed good decision-making skills, which led to intelligent and timely off-loads, good line breaks and a solid defensive outing.
“It was difficult (struggling with injuries). The Crusaders match was my first game back after the knee injury. It was a big surprise to get the call-up, but I’m grateful and glad it turned out the way it did,” the former Monument High School pupil said.
“I think I’ve been improving in all areas of the game. I can’t say I’m expanding one area more than the other. I think guys around me help me a lot to evolve my game even more. I’m just grateful to play next to and against great opponents.”
Bloemfontein-born Odendaal, who turns 22 in two weeks, garnered praise from coach Ludeke.
“Burger hadn’t played a full 80 minutes, and coming in against a quality side like the Crusaders is something special,” the coach said.
“That’s the only thing we can hope for — having a great squad … Our youngsters came through with flying colours, they took their opportunities. I’m really grateful for that.
“The next thing is to be consistent. This week we play against a side (the Lions) that had a brilliant tour, so we would like to have the same consistency in our performance.”
The Bulls take on the Lions at Ellis Park on Saturday.
Odendaal, who will be making his second Super Rugby appearance, believes this encounter will be tougher than the clash against the Crusaders.
“Local games are always the hardest. I’m actually expecting things to be a lot harder than against the Crusaders this coming weekend against the Lions,” he said.