It is disconcerting to think that Jacques Burger is every bit as hard on himself as he is on those opponents he routinely smashes into the middle of next week with a tackling game that may just be the most unremittingly courageous ever witnessed in English club rugby. “I realise now that a lot of what happened was my fault,” he says, looking back over two long years of orthopaedic misery. “I understand myself well enough to know that patience isn’t a strength of mine, but maybe I could have been a little more careful with my body.”
Back in 2011, the Namibian flanker – sporting frontiersman, back-row buccaneer, captain of his country, possibly the finest player ever produced by so lowly a union nation and surely the nearest thing to a one-man team the international game has seen in half a century – turned in a series of performances at the World Cup in New Zealand that pretty much beggared belief. Many good judges considered him to be the best open-side specialist in the tournament: quite a call, given the presence in that competition of David Pocock, Sam Warburton, Maurie Fa’asavalu and Richie McCaw, and utterly astonishing when you remember that Namibia lost all four games by an aggregate score of 266-44 in little more than a fortnight.
The really scary thing? Burger was playing injured. Injured to the degree that he could barely drag himself on to the pitch for the anthems, let alone spend 80 minutes knocking seven bells out of opponents as strong as South Africa, Wales, Samoa and Fiji. “I was hurting so much,” he recalls. “But what could I do, except have an injection before a game and get on with it? I love my country and I was the captain. I had no choice but to play.”
A few weeks previously, Burger had charged down a kick while playing for Saracens against Northampton and landed hard on his right knee. “Such a little thing,” he says. “Such a stupid thing.” He knew deep down that he had done himself a genuine mischief, but the lure of the World Cup was so strong that he was on the field again within six weeks. “Too early,” he admits now.
On returning early to Saracens – the blatant inequality of the World Cup scheduling meant that the Namibians, the vast majority of them amateur players, were back home doing the day job well before the end of the pool phase – he had no intention of taking time out and getting himself right. “Yes, I played on,” he says. “But pretty soon I had to own up. I had to tell them: ‘Look, I’m really sorry, but I can’t carry on like this’.” It was then that he sought specialist advice... and discovered the true extent of the problem.
“I saw several specialists,” he continues, “and what they saw was really worrying. There was so much bone damage in the knee, I was starting to go bow-legged. The operation was a major one: they call the procedure a high tibial osteotomy and, basically, it involved them changing the shape of my right leg and putting the kneecap in a different place to reduce impact and pressure in vulnerable areas. They told me my recovery would take at least a year. That was a tough thing to hear, and when I realised after a while that it would take a lot longer than that, it was tougher still.
“At times, I honestly felt I’d never get back. There were good days, days when I would climb out of bed, push my foot to the floor and say, ‘Yes, it’s improving.’ But there were bad days too: a lot of bad days, to tell you the truth. All I wanted to do was play. I love the fact that I’m paid to play, but the thing I love more is playing itself. There were at least two days in every week when I felt really down. I thought it was being taken away from me.”
That thought turned out to be completely and joyously wrong. Fully fit for the first time since that fateful chargedown and freshly restored to the Saracens pack that will face Bath tomorrow – outstanding in the comprehensive victory over Gloucester last weekend, his performance brought the broadest of smiles to the face of the resolutely undemonstrative rugby director Mark McCall – he has a two-year contract extension tucked away in his back pocket and has every intention of playing at the next World Cup, in England in the autumn of 2015.
“It hasn’t been completely straightforward,” he admits. “I initially came back at the end of last season – people seemed to think everything was going well and were happy for me to take the plunge – but found I couldn’t twist or turn in the way I wanted to and needed to. It just wasn’t right, and I was being a liability to myself. So it was back to hospital for another scan and another operation – what they call a ‘lateral release’, which involved a laser and some burning away of tissue from the outside of my kneecap. It cost me another three months, but compared to the major surgery it was nothing.
“Even now, my training schedule is carefully managed. I don’t always join the others in a full afternoon session: instead, I go to the gym and hit the bike or the cross-trainer for some low-impact work. But I’m in a happy place now. The medics here [at Saracens] have been amazing – they’ve put in an awful lot of hours and spent an awful lot of time putting up with my long face – and I can’t thank them enough. All I want now is a clear run.”
Unsurprisingly, news of Burger’s recovery reached Windhoek at the speed of light. Danie Vermeulen, the head coach of Namibia, wanted Burger to play international rugby during the summer – in Senegal, of all places, where an important African Confederation tournament was taking place. The flanker wrestled with his conscience on receiving the invitation, which in reality was more of a plea, before just about managing to reject it.
“I said, ‘Look, I really can’t right now. I have to look after myself a little, and I have to look after my club, too.’ I felt really bad about it, and as I probably won’t be around for the whole of the qualifying process when it begins next year, I’ll feel even more terrible then. But as I told the coach, I’m not 20 any more and there comes a point when I have to safeguard my career to some degree.
“This is my livelihood, and Saracens have been amazingly supportive. A big part of me wants to be there every time Namibia play, but in the end what good does it do you being a local hero if you don’t have a job?”
A couple of months into his 31st year, Burger is beginning to think of life beyond professional rugby. There are 14,000 acres of farmland waiting for him back home in Stampriet, which is as near to the Kalahari Desert as makes no difference. Three years ago, he confessed to this newspaper that the farm was more a figment of the imagination than a going concern: no buildings, no water, no nothing. Even now, things are still pretty sparse down there.
But the land is at least well stocked with sheep and cattle. Sheep and cattle? You can find them in Hertfordshire, for heaven’s sake. Why not go for something more… African? “We have leopards too,” he says with a grin. “But you don’t farm leopards. You just have to deal with them as best you can.”
It is tempting to think of Burger dealing with dangerous wildlife in the same way as he dealt with an overmatched Gloucester pack six days ago: that is to say, with his bare hands. Looked at from this perspective, the visiting prop Nick Wood was almost as brave as he was stupid to stamp on the flanker’s head a minute or so into the game – a deed that earned him an instant sending off, followed by an eight-week suspension.
Mention of the assault brings a half-smile to Burger’s face. “He caught me on the top of my jaw and left me with a cut on my head,” he says. “Was I surprised? Yes. Am I upset? Not in the least. I’m sure it was a spur-of-the-moment thing that he regretted the second it happened. I’m told he has no history of that kind of play, and it’s true that he apologised twice, on the field and again in the dressing room. He couldn’t have done much more. It’s all fine.”
A generous spirit, this Namibian. There again, a tap on the bonce amounts to precious little when you have just had the whole of your right leg rearranged.