This is still Sarries’ time says Burger the wrecking-ball
EVERYBODY will have their own favourite MOM performance in Europe but for me nothing comes close to Jacques Burger’s superhuman effort for Saracens against Clermont three years ago when Sarries thrashed the competition favourites 46-6 in the semi-final at Twickenham.
The match stats show that he made 27 tackles in 69 minutes before going off to a standing ovation which is impressive enough but stats don’t always tell the whole story. These days you seem to log a tackle every time you make contact with a ball carrier, sometimes in unison with a couple of colleagues, but if you watch the match back the vast majority of Burger’s tackles were bone-crunching man-onman, one-on-one, hits.
He tore into Clermont like there was no tomorrow, basically because such was the perilous state of his battered body that in rugby terms there possibly was no tomorrow. Every match could have been his last so he ripped in with the concentrated fury of a man with nothing to lose.
Burger was working his way back after an 18-month medical nightmare. His right leg had bowed way too much under the strain and his tibia was horribly out of kilter. To straighten it and redistribute the pressure through the joint surgeons decided to saw out a Vshaped wedge of bone from his tibia.
His specialist in Britain advised against taking the risk – “understandably so” according to Burger himself – but, undeterred, he returned to South Africa, where another specialist was willing to try. To be frank it was last chance saloon surgery. And there were further complications, another couple of knee clear-outs, gloomy consultations and much delayed comebacks.
It looked hopeless but Burger tackled the challenge with the same manic intensity he used to show on the pitch. Gradually, miraculously, the joint came good although he still had to ice it for two or three hours every day after training and games with a specially adapted machine. Which he continued to do until he retired at Sarries a year ago this week.
“That was some game, that was the match that showed Saracens were going to become a major force in the sport,” recalls Burger talking this week from his sunny porch back home in Namibia. “We didn’t go on to win the final but the 46-6 win over a full Clermont team was a huge day for the club. It took us on to another level and showed us how good we could become.
“To be fair we were flattered a little by the scoreline. Everything went our way at important stages in the game no question, but we were in the mood. Personally, I felt up for the game like almost never before. Outside of captaining Namibia through the 2011 World Cup this was the biggest rugby game of my life and after all the injuries and stuff I was determined not to let it pass me by.
“We had to take them on physically up front, that comes with the territory against French teams and especially Clermont, and that’s exactly what we did. I got in a big hit very early on which is always good for morale and it just flowed from there. I don’t recall feeling any pain or fatigue until the moment I came off. I was sore for a week after though.
“I learnt a lot about myself in those final years at Sarries when I was constantly fighting injury and in a fair bit of pain. I’ve hobbled down the stairs at home the day before a big game and hardly been able to put any weight through my knee. I often thought how the hell am I going to get through 80 minutes or even 55 minutes but don’t underrate the power of positive thinking. It can take you to another place.
“Come match day morning I always felt a bit better and come the kick-off I was good to go for another shift. It also put things in perspective. If you can overcome that sort of pain then the normal run of play knocks, cuts and collisions are nothing at all really.”
Burger is enjoying his retirement although having bought a farm he is busy enough learning the business. In rugby terms he has stepped back entirely for a year to let the body heal and the batteries recharge.
To keep ‘fit’ he plays darts ‘very competitively’ but he does have slightly more active plans for the future and any number of great memories from Saracens to while away the hours. He makes a point of watching Saracens whenever their games are shown – of course he does – but will lock himself alone in his den. As he explains:
“We get all the live European Cup games and internationals and if Sarries aren’t playing I will often go down the pub with the rest of the lads and watch the games, enjoy a couple of beers and all the banter. But I can’t do that if Sarries are on, it means too much. I’m still way too emotionally involved and end up shouting and cursing at the TV and barking instructions as if I was on the pitch. I talk – shout – at myself almost non-stop. That is just too embarrassing for all concerned to do in public!
“As for the future I feel fresh and rested and my hope for the next year or two is to travel around Namibia with my own rugby clinic, not just to spread the word on the game itself but its values and how it can help a group of people come together. I want Namibians of all ages and backgrounds to understand that and the fun and friendship rugby can bring.
“I also want them to start dreaming big. At present Namibian rugby can only take a youngster so far but there is absolutely nothing to say they can’t take the road I took and head for France and then England.
“The group I know and love at Saracens are my template. They are an incredibly hard-working and modest bunch, they put the hard yards in and they trust each other. We had our fair share of disappointments along the way and were the better for it. We came close, lost, learned our lessons and when it was our time we struck.
“The club invest in good people as well as very good rugby players and that investment pays off. They supported me all the way when my injuries seemed career-threatening and I will always be grateful for that. The other thing is that we never forgot to smell the roses and have a bit of fun.”
As for next Saturday, alone in his den shouting at the box, how does he see it panning out? “It’s going to be a great game. Clermont are a club with soul like Saracens and have committed themselves to the cause, they won’t be satisfied until they become European champions.
“But I look at Sarries these days and truly believe they have the game and the strength in depth to make it two titles in a row. It’s still their time.”
Bone-crunching: Jacques Burger tackles Clermont’s Sitiveni Sivivatu