Heineken Cup: Humbling of Clermont is a powerful painkiller for Saracens' Jacques Burger and Chris Ashton

Saracens through to the final after 46-6 triumph

If a club as rich, resourceful and ruthless as Clermont Auvergne can lose a Heineken Cup semi-final by a record 46-6 margin, it is tempting to think that most things are possible in professional rugby. Even if it does not transpire that the astonishing Jacques Burger was born in Wapping rather than Windhoek and is therefore available to play for England in next year’s World Cup, it is entirely feasible on this evidence that Chris Ashton will return to red-rose duty in good time for the global shindig in a little over 500 days’ time.

Burger, as Namibian as they come (more’s the pity), was the talk of Twickenham at the weekend, and justifiably so: he went after each and every Clermont ball-carrier, from Sitiveni Sivivatu out wide to Fritz Lee in the back row, and set about them with a relish, if you’ll pardon the cheap pun on the name. He made the best part of 30 tackles, most of them blood-curdlingly ferocious, and treated every 20-80 ball as an even-money shot. By the time he had stopped flipping and flattening opponents of all shapes and sizes, Saracens were over the hills and far away.

As Clermont were counting their bruises, Burger was counting his blessings. “Unreal, eh?” he said after receiving a man-of-the-match award that Blind Pugh himself would have considered inevitable. “I was thinking about things this morning as I was packing my bag at home and starting to prepare for the game. When you have a serious injury, there are times when you wonder if you’ll ever get back to playing and, if you do, whether you’ll be as good as you were. I was gone for two years with my knee problems, so it’s incredibly rewarding to be back doing what I love. I hope when people watch they see someone who’s having fun.”

It would be stretching a point to suggest that Clermont were entertained by the sight of Burger enjoying himself, but in the fullness of time they will not begrudge him his day in the sun. Whatever is left of his right knee is no longer in a place where knees are usually found, such was the extent of the surgical intervention, and he spends most of his free time connected to an ice machine, which is handily situated next to his sofa. He does not know what it is to play without discomfort and while his pain threshold is clearly off the scale – “maybe I’m borderline stupid; maybe I’m just too dumb to feel it” – he suffers for his sport. In the age of the pampered pro, here is a man who puts himself through purgatory every time he sets foot on the field.

Ashton’s purgatorial fires burn at a lower temperature: a player out of form is immeasurably better off than a player half-crippled. But this has been a difficult season for him none the less, and if it ends with a recall to England colours on the summer tour of New Zealand, which it may well do on this showing, he will feel every bit as blessed as his clubmate.

There were any number of fine Saracens performances in a victory of unprecedented proportions, from Mako Vunipola’s close-quarter potency at loose-head prop to Alex Goode’s supremely intelligent contribution at full-back – a showing enriched by his goal-kicking prowess following the decision to relieve the recently injured Owen Farrell of the responsibility. Yet had the contest been tighter, as it could easily have been had one or two important decisions gone Clermont’s way in the opening quarter, Ashton might well have been the man who made the difference on the scoreboard.

Watched extremely closely by the England backs coach Andy Farrell, the discarded wing did all the things for his club that he failed to do for his country during the autumn internationals: he showed the exquisite timing of old on his roamings infield, finished with a minimum of fuss and defended effectively. Most importantly, his work-rate was high: not even Jack Nowell, the youngster from Exeter who wrestled him out of the Test shirt at the start of the Six Nations, could have put in a busier shift.

Mark McCall, the Saracens rugby director, described Ashton’s display as “sensational”: not a word frequently used in this context over recent months, but an understandable choice given the quality of the two tries that took the former Northampton player to 11 for the campaign – a record at Heineken Cup level. The first, resulting from a double short-side hit down the left that brought Goode, Schalk Brits and Brad Barritt into play, was very much a team production; the second was all about individuality as Ashton showed Wesley Fofana a clean pair of heels down the right.

Only the England coaches themselves know how much trust they still have in their most dangerous, most idiosyncratic, most error-prone wing; only they can decide if Ashton possesses the rugby intelligence to maximise the sharpest set of attacking instincts in the red-rose game. All those on the outside know for sure is that when he is operating in a Saracens-type environment that emphasises the positive aspects of pressure rather than the negative ones – when he feels he is having as much fun as the mighty and magnificent Burger – he is quite an act.

BUY RUGBY WORLD CUP TICKETS

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Isis in Syria: Influential tribal leaders hold secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over possibility of mobilising against militants

Tribal gathering

Influential clans in Syria have held secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over the possibility of mobilising against Isis. But they are determined not to be pitted against each other
Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians

Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians
Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously

Illnesses, car crashes and suicides

Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously
Srebrenica 20 years after the genocide: Why the survivors need closure

Bosnia's genocide, 20 years on

No-one is admitting where the bodies are buried - literally and metaphorically
How Comic-Con can make or break a movie: From Batman vs Superman to Star Wars: Episode VII

Power of the geek Gods

Each year at Comic-Con in San Diego, Hollywood bosses nervously present blockbusters to the hallowed crowd. It can make or break a movie
What do strawberries and cream have to do with tennis?

Perfect match

What do strawberries and cream have to do with tennis?
10 best trays

Get carried away with 10 best trays

Serve with ceremony on a tray chic carrier
Wimbledon 2015: Team Murray firing on all cylinders for SW19 title assault

Team Murray firing on all cylinders for title assault

Coaches Amélie Mauresmo and Jonas Bjorkman aiming to make Scot Wimbledon champion again
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Vasek Pospisil must ignore tiredness and tell himself: I'm in the quarter-final, baby!

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

Vasek Pospisil must ignore tiredness and tell himself: I'm in the quarter-final, baby!
Ashes 2015: Angus Fraser's top 10 moments from previous series'

Angus Fraser's top 10 Ashes moments

He played in five series against Australia and covered more as a newspaper correspondent. From Waugh to Warne and Hick to Headley, here are his highlights
Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

Heavy weather

What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

World Bodypainting Festival 2015

Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

Don't call us nerds

Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high