Clermont Auvergne, the best side in Europe by most measures but still seeking the title that would confirm them as such, were raging against daylight robbery long before the interval at Twickenham yesterday. Not that there were many witnesses to the alleged crime. The abject failure of those responsible for staging this Heineken Cup semi-final to attract anything resembling a decent crowd meant that more people were in the vicinity when the Brinks Mat gold heist was carried out.
One man did have his eyes peeled, however: the television match official Gareth Simmonds. It was he who decided that Brock James, the French club’s Australian outside-half, was sufficiently out of order to concede a profoundly questionable penalty try; that Damien Chouly, their back-rower, was enough of an obstructive force to invalidate Benson Stanley’s riposte; that it was Owen Farrell’s knee, rather than his hand, that propelled the ball towards the Clermont line in the build-up to Saracens’ third and most destructive try.
In fairness to Simmonds, two-thirds of his evidence would have stood up in any court worthy of the name. The other third, relating to the penalty try? That would have been thrown out by any fair-minded judge long before the closing arguments. Clermont will seethe for ever and a day about it and with good reason, but on the balance of probabilities, it amounted to something less than a miscarriage of justice.
Why? Because Saracens had all the stand-out players, one of whom – the wild-haired, scar-faced Namibian flanker Jacques Burger – towered above everyone else. In the first half, Burger made 18 tackles: just about the same number as Clermont as a collective. Not since Thierry Dusautoir, the majestic French loose forward from Toulouse, single-handedly fought the All Blacks to a standstill at the quarter-final stage of the 2007 World Cup, has a big match showcased one individual’s defensive mastery to such a degree.
There is a reason why Burger is held in such esteem, not only by those directly involved with Saracens but by followers of other clubs who spend much of each season praying that the cash-rich, nakedly ambitious Londoners will be beaten. The reason is courage. It is just possible that in some far-flung corner of the union landscape, there is a braver, more passionate player…someone even less interested in his own physical wellbeing. Possible, but not likely. When Burger performs at this level of self-disregarding banditry, he is one of the most compelling figures in the sport.
And to think that at the start of the campaign, he was suffering from a knee injury so severe that the most optimistic prognosis was based around the phrase “career-ending”.
When he took the field here, he was as heavily strapped as usual – quite what that strapping protects is anyone’s guess, for his knee is no longer in its original position – and somehow, you just knew the ravaged joint was giving him grief. But pain is nothing more than a temporary distraction to a man who so obviously prides himself on the permanence of his commitment.