This is still Sar­ries’ time says Burger the wreck­ing-ball

The Rugby Paper - - European Champions Cup Final Preview -

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

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