SARACENS HEAD TO CARDIFF THIS WEEKEND TO TAKE ON JONNY WILKINSON AND TOULON IN THE HEINEKEN CUP FINAL, THE LAST HURRAH IN THE ASTONISHING RUGBY ADVENTURE OF JACQUES BURGER.
He is effortless company, refreshingly uncomplicated and, as we discovered in a backstreet, bijou coffee shop in Harpenden this week, a sucker for carrot cake. Do not be fooled, though: there is nothing in rugby more terrifying than Jacques Burger. Apparently he has a bearskin rug on his living room floor; the bear’s not actually dead, just too scared to move.
‘Hitting someone is the best feeling in the world,’ says the Saracens open-side. ‘I love getting stuck into people. Mind you, my skill-set is limited but I’m always up for it. It’s borderline stupid. I’m not a dirty player at all. I don’t do cheap shots. It’s just that if you run at me, I am going to try to smash you as hard as I can.’
There are men with white coats and clipboards who will tell you that getting hit by Jacques Burger can actually alter your DNA. Decades later your descendants will wake up one morning clutching their heads and thinking, ‘bugger me, what was that?’ Certainly the genetic profile of Clermont Auvergne may never be quite the same again after Jacques Burger atomised each and every one of them in last month’s semi-final trouncing at Twickenham; twenty-eight tackles and each of them earthshaking. Delirious Saracens supporters were almost dribbling in admiration.
‘He tackles people with his face,’ says one besotted fan. ‘I mean, I’m training to be an osteopath and that must hurt.’ Another shakes her head. ‘He puts his head where you wouldn’t want to put your boots’, she says. ‘It makes me wince. He’s the most amazing player in the world.’
Jacques Burger’s view – brought up as he was wrestling brawny farmers on granite pitches in Namibia – is that a little bit of pain never hurt anyone. Yes, his bones sound like a bowl of Rice Krispies when he gets up of a Sunday morning but, then again, he who scorns his own existence is Lord of yours, which is what makes him such a rare inspiration.
‘Anyone who’s been involved in rugby at any level will tell you that you need to make an impact straight away,’ says team-mate David Strettle. ‘You know, tell the opposition what you’re about. And when you’ve got Jacky Burger on the pitch, he’s the guy that does that for you.’ Will Fraser agrees. ‘In every aspect, he’s just an animal the way he plays the way he trains’, he says. ‘I don’t think you’ll come across many people like him. He’s totally fearless.’
Jacques Burger specialises in what Saracens call TSPDS, which stands for, The Shit People Don’t See. So Schalk Brits has the schimmy, David Strettle has the step but down among rugby’s creases and shadows, it’s Burger who has the nose that looks like a dropped trifle, five breaks so far and still counting.
‘Yeah, my nose is pretty bashed up,’ he says. ‘But you can’t play rugby without a broken nose. If you don’t have a bad nose, you’re not playing the game properly. I’m just hoping someone’s going to knock it back into shape and save some surgery.’
You wonder what Jacques wife Lehanie makes of all this; married as she is to a man who, for all the wonderful King Charles curls and ivory teeth – the rumour at Saracens is that he eats with a hairnet to avoid chewing his bouncing locks – can only breathe through one nostril and who – therefore – snores like a rhinoceros. ‘No, she’s thinks I’m amazing looking,’ he says. ‘And she’s always had really good taste. I don’t know whether she’s trying to make me feel good but, yeah, she thinks I’m cute.’
For the record he’s scared of snakes, confined spaces and failure but for all his physical prowess the toughest piece of Jacques Burger – clearly – is the six inches between his ears. Had he been a horse the knee injury he suffered two years ago would have finished him and – as it was – it was touch and go but, Jacques being Jacques, it was just another log for the fire.
‘No, it was really hard and there were a lot of bad days. There were times when it just didn’t feel as though it was getting better and I said to Lehanie, look, maybe we should consider going back home. I think I must have been borderline depressed some of the time. We do have a psychologist at the club but I decided to sort it out my own way. Luckily Saracens are incredibly supportive. They actually offered me a two-year contract extension while I was out and that took a lot of strain off my shoulders given they were investing in a horse with three legs. I was really grateful.’
The procedure was a tibial osteotomy which, in English, meant reconstructing a leg that was beginning to look like the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Surgeons in Britain advised against the operation so it was done in South Africa and even now he has to ice the joint for twenty minutes eight times a day, which at least gets him out of the washing up. The ‘Meccano’ that kept his leg together he now keeps in his match-day bag, as much an inspiration to him as he has become to everyone else.
‘You’d be tempted to think that if he was a car, no one would insure him’ says Dave Strettle, ‘but actually you would because he’d consider it a sign of weakness to make a claim.’ Defence Coach Paul Gustard simply shakes his head. ‘He’s the most courageous player I’ve ever seen,’ he says.
When Burger first turned up at Saracens on Christmas Eve 2009 – boots in one hand, visa in the other – no one was too sure what they’d got; gold-dust, as it turned out, both on and off the field. But when he finally closes the Saracens scrapbook, he and his young family – Lehaniie, Mila and Milan – will head back to their beloved Namibia to farm 14,000 acres of parched wilderness on the edge of the Kalahari desert – no electricity, no water – just the red, raw, sand dunes, the livestock and the wildlife.
‘Actually there is water there,’ he says. ‘It’s just it’s underground so we’re going to have to drill for it. Plus there’s a house to build, obviously, and all the livestock to sort out. I’ve never looked after animals before so I’m going to do some courses here before we head home. It’s a hell of a project and I know I’m going to make a lot of mistakes but let’s see how it goes.’
If all this sounds utterly hare-brained, that’s probably because it is, although Lehanie’s brother and father have a farm just up the road, or they would have if such a road existed. Jacques is hoping – with their help – to have some 200 sheep and 50 cattle, although the exact numbers my depend on the crocodiles.
‘We do have a lot of jackals, lynx that sort of thing,’ he says. ‘There’s even the odd leopard but they’re easy to sort out. You just call them up and you say, ‘listen, I don’t like what you’ve been doing with my sheep. Leave me alone.’
If the future’s intriguing, so too is the present. Saracens have a Premiership Final a week after the Toulon game and listening to them going about their work in the gym is both deafening and instructive; a raucous confidence reminiscent of Wasps ten years ago and, above all, a sense of if not now, then when?
‘I can really sense that buzz, you know guys asking themselves whether this is our time,’ says Burger. ‘A lot of people don’t want to talk about the double because it’s still a while way – you know, afraid, almost, that you might curse it – but it’s something to get excited about and I don’t see why we can’t talk about it. We’ve been in some tough battles and we’ve lost but I think it’s time to go one step better and win a couple of cups. We’re on the verge of doing something great.’
Saracens have rarely been better than they were in the Heineken semi-final against Clermont Auvergne; six tries to nil on a third of the ball and a third of the territory is just ludicrous but it’s where they may have to get to again. There are all sorts of questions to be answered against Toulon not least can Jacques find a way to Jonny.
‘It’ll be something we definitely talk about because he’s built that reputation and he’s well-respected around the world for a reason,’ says Burger. ‘I know he makes great decisions but we have to force him to make mistakes. I don’t think I’ve ever played against him before and, well, it’s just great going up against the best players in the world isn’t it?
The man – truly – is remarkable; not just where he manages to get to but how he’s come back from where he’s been. Put it this way, peckish leopards circling the edge of the Kalahari desert might be wise to pass on the Burger Place in the coming years lest they bite off rather more than they can chew.
13 MAY 2014