New Zealand vs Namibia RWC 2015: Jacques Burger expects first Rugby World Cup win before retirement

After serious knee surgery, Burger was told he would never play rugby again. But as he tells Jack de Menezes, he is determined to end his Namibia career with their first ever World Cup victory

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The Independent Online

First Japan, now Namibia? The likelihood of the African nation upsetting the odds and beating New Zealand today may be even slimmer than the Brave Blossoms stood of downing the Springboks last weekend, but the upset of all upsets has already spurred on the lowest ranked side in the World Cup to write their own piece of history.

When Namibia open their 2015 World Cup account by running out alongside the likes of Sonny Bill Williams and Liam Messam at the Olympic Stadium, they will do so knowing that most people will have written off their chances of victory.

But seeing Japan beat South Africa in a stunning fashion in Brighton has already inspired the Biltongboere captain, Jacques Burger, to work harder than he has ever done so before in a bid to pull of the biggest upset in rugby union history.

“I think it’s a bit surreal at the moment,” says Burger. “I know it’s the best chance we’ll have, or the best chance we’ll have had in all the World Cups we’ve played in to actually win a match. But saying that, you look at the teams that are playing us; we’re playing the All Blacks, we’re playing Tonga who didn’t play great this week but they’re a very good rugby side and can beat a lot of good teams on any day. Georgia have shown what they can do and then Argentina, so by no means will it be easy but the excitement for me personally – it’s going to be my last few matches for my country before I retire – I’ve got to ensure that I make this count.

“Last night if you’d asked me what are the odds of Japan winning, I’d have said ‘never, never ever will they beat South Africa’,” he adds when we speak on Sunday morning. “Definitely not yesterday, maybe in 10 years, 20 years, but yesterday I was like ‘no way’ and they did it. It was unreal. Sitting there afterwards I was like ‘this can’t be real, can’t be real’ because they didn’t look like a team who was miles behind. They looked like a team that were at the same level. We’re talking about Japan, what are they 13th in the world?

“If you’ve got that belief, then there’s nothing from stopping you. Japan has really made this tournament exciting for everybody.”

Burger is not getting ahead of himself though. A veteran of the 2007 and 2011 World Cups, the 32-year-old understands how hard it is for a nation like Namibia to earn a victory on the biggest stage, given their team features amateurs more used to farming and dentistry rather than facing the reigning world champions.

“I think we have to forget about the score,” he adds. “The score is going to be irrelevant to us. Realistically, we’re playing the All Blacks and we know what they are, we know they are a different animal to any of the others. They are the head of the pack, but I think if we put together good phases of play and score a good try or we can maybe hold them out for maybe five minutes – small victories in the game where we can take a lot of faith away from and into the next matches – then that will be brilliant.

“That’s going to be so valuable going into Tonga five days later because we’ll know we were in the same position, five days ago against the best team in the world, and they couldn’t score against us. We need small victories throughout the game, small things like say I go up in the air against a full-back and I take the ball out of the air in front of him, it’s like ‘I did it against him’. I think for the amateur guys especially that’ll be massive and the value of that – you can’t teach that. It has to be experienced and something you have to go through to take it onto the next one [match].”

Burger is already counting his blessings just to be at England 2015, though. As we meet in Hackney, just a stone’s throw from where this evening’s Pool C encounter will take place, the Saracens flanker is having every injury of his bruising, bone-crunching career painted onto his body. It’s the large painting on his right knee that catches the eye, the location of which a serious operation saw his knee joint with his tibia effectively relocated to correct an injury that had Burger in excruciating pain and from which he was told that he would never play rugby again.

Having been named one of the top five players the 2011 Rugby World Cup, it looked as though Namibia’s greatest export to English rugby would fail to fulfil his true potential, but the rugged back-row was intent to prove everyone wrong.

“I do a lot of things [differently] since my massive knee surgery four years ago and was told I wasn’t going to be able to play again,” says Burger. “I’ve had five surgeries on the same knee after that. It kind of looked like I wasn’t going to play again.”

Already icing his knee up to eight times a day, Burger started using a new joint-lubricating gel named Flexiseq, which helps with movement and pain relief and, luckily for Burger, had just entered into a partnership with his Premiership club.

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Saracens and Namibia flanker Jacques Burger

He adds: “I started using not just Flexiseq but a combination of things. I looked after myself, I iced a lot, I saw the physio every morning and I was introduced to Flexiseq and I thought ‘why not?’ I’ve got nothing to lose. So I started using it, and for me as just another guy in the street, I didn’t know what the whole thing was about, I didn’t know what it does. My whole issue was pain management and getting ready for the next training or game, so every morning, every evening, that’s where I decided that because I was fortunate enough to get it from the club I didn’t have to go out and buy it so I started using it and they said give it a crack.

It’s definitely made a massive difference to me playing wise. It’s hard to say what it’s done on the inside of my knee because I’m not really seeing that, but I feel good. I promise you I feel 100 times better than last year. A year ago after every match, I know it takes some time after an injury for your joints to react and settle down, but I had massive swelling after every match, after every training I was using the ice machine for about three to four hours a day every day, and I’m not over-exaggerating, whereas this year it’s got so much better.”

The fearsome flanker will certainly be the one to watch on the African’s side, having carved out an unrivalled reputation for his monster tackles during his six years with Sarries. He’ll be looking to leave his mark on a few of the All Blacks, too, but admits that he won’t be going out there with the intention to hurt anyone or target an individual in particular. Rather, he simply loves to tackle.

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Namibia captain Jacques Burger with his past injuries painted onto his body

Burger adds: “I’m not targeting anybody. I’m approaching it like any other game. It’s something that I like doing, defence is like a chess board that I want to learn. I’m like one of the small ones at the front, I’m like a pawn that just goes out there and does the ugly job. I just try to hit a couple of guys, maybe take a king here or a queen there and that’s my job.

“For me it’s an honour to play against the All Blacks, they deserve everything they get. All the credit they achieve, all the accolades, they deserve that because they play well every week and they’re a top rugby side so it’s an honour to play against them, but you can’t show them too much respect. The one way you can show people that you’re up for a match is by defence. It’s not about how you offload the ball out the back, it’s about your heart and showing them ‘listen I’m here to play, if you think it’s going to be an easy day there’s no way’ and that’s a defence.”

It’s left to Burger to predict how he sees his Thursday night playing out: “There’s going to be some tackling to do, there’s going to be a lot of tackling!”

Jacques Burger looks after his joints by using FLEXISEQ Sport - the drug-free, pain relieving gel used to ease joint and muscle stiffness. Visit sports.flexiseq.com to be #battleready

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