Jacques Burger: the new toughest guy in rugby?
As the Namibian enforcer takes on top-of-the-table Northampton, he speaks to Chris Hewett about how he came to Saracens and why he intends to till 14,000 acres back home when he retires
Saturday 25 September 2010
Stampriet is an old German trading post in southern Namibia, otherwise known as the middle of nowhere: red sand dunes and artesian wells are chief among its features, lions are frequently to be seen picking their way through the scrub, the Kalahari Desert would be just along the road if such a road existed.
This is the land that Jacques Burger has chosen to farm. He has no electricity just at the moment – come to mention it, he has no farmhouse either – but Burger is not a man to fret over the fine detail. "I've wanted to do this since I was a kid," he says, "and once I've stopped playing rugby, I'll do it for the rest of my days."
He has almost 14,000 acres to his name, which takes a bit of looking after – especially when he spends his working life in Hertfordshire. But his father-in-law owns the farm next door, and his brother-in-law owns the one next door to that. "Namibia is one big farm," he says proudly, "although I don't come from a farming background myself. I was born in Windhoek, which makes me a town boy. But I love the space and freedom of the outdoors, and this project will keep me busy when I retire from professional sport. Players all over the world struggle with life after rugby. I don't want to go through that, so I'm getting myself organised."
At one point during the conversation, the 27-year-old flanker imagines himself playing some form of the game at 50. Saracens would happily settle for that. Since joining the club last season – he arrived on Christmas Eve, a pair of boots in one hand and a precious visa in the other – the flanker has established himself as one of the must-see acts in the Premiership and has come to symbolise the spirit of the "new Saracens", which is altogether different from the spirit of the old, flaky version.
To the union-watching public at large, he is an all-action, heart-and-soul firebrand with wild hair and a magnificently misshapen nose that bears witness to the harshest realities of life in pursuit of the loose ball. To his director of rugby, Brendan Venter, he is a priceless individual who makes 80-plus individual contributions every time he takes the field. The director of rugby was hardly a shrinking violet during his days as a Springbok centre – "He's the only doctor in the world who creates his own patients," said one wag of the Cape Town GP – but Burger is in a different league. "I cannot tell you how brilliant the guy is," Venter said after the recent victory over Sale. "When I look at what he does in a game, I stand amazed."
Like the great Saracens forward Richard Hill before him, Burger can perform all three back-row roles with something approaching equal facility, although he has his preferences. "I've played No 8 in a World Cup, but I don't like it much," he admits. "As a No 8, you must think carefully before getting involved. Me? I like to be in the front line all the time. Whenever I play, it's always with the attitude of an open-side flanker. That's where I'm being picked at the moment, so I'm happy."
Not that he is ever unhappy. Few Namibians are given an opportunity to play professionally – "I think there are four of us at the moment: three in France, and me," he says – and he would consider it a betrayal of his own good fortune to complain about the sporting career he is building for himself here. Burger is the captain of his national team and assuming he stays fit – a fairly safe assumption, if his general air of indestructibility is anything to go by – he will lead his countrymen at next year's World Cup in New Zealand. It is the fourth time in succession Namibia have qualified for the global gathering, and as they have taken some rare old beastings in the past – on average, they concede 64 points a game – a draw which puts them in the least forgiving of the 2011 pools cannot be described as kind. Samoa, one of the most dangerous sides in the sport on a good day, are the fourth-ranked team out of five. The first? Why, it's none other than South Africa, near neighbours and reigning champions. Thanks a bunch.
"I've played against the Springboks only once, in Cape Town in 2007," Burger recalls. "We went 7-0 up and then conceded more than 100 points. I never thought there could be enough time in a rugby match for a side to reach three figures, but that day I found it was perfectly possible. There was nothing to enjoy, no fun to be had, but I was still full of admiration for the effort the players put in. Things went wrong – they always will when a team made up largely of amateurs takes on a team full of world-class professionals – but not for a second did anyone stop trying. It was a matter of pride, and I felt proud to be a part of it.
"Basically, the rugby culture in Namibia is the same as you find in South Africa. It's just that we don't have the money or the manpower. When I was growing up, my dad was involved with a small amateur club. It was all there was. Now, 20 years on, there are still only 1,000 registered players in the country, none of whom are paid anything at all. It can be frustrating, going from a high-performance environment like this to something much lower down the scale, but what can Namibian rugby do about it? In this day and age, there is only so much we can expect from people who work hard every day from eight in the morning to five at night and then spend their evenings training, just for the love of it. I know this: I'll never turn my back on international rugby, because ultimately, I love my country and love representing the people who live there."
When he talks about Saracens, he does so with something approaching veneration. "The move here has been such a blessing," he says before embarking on the story of how it came about. Burger's deal with the Blue Bulls, the mighty South African provincial side based in Pretoria, was drawing to a close and he was deep in discussions with the former Wallaby coach Eddie Jones, who, strange to relate, had quit the rugby directorship at Saracens not long before. Jones was now working in the Japanese club game, and looking to recruit.
At this point, Saracens lost Michael Owen, the Wales and Lions No 8, to a career-ending injury, were about to lose the Springbok flanker Wikus van Heerden into the bargain, and had a hole that needed filling. Both Venter and the club's chief executive, Edward Griffiths, knew Burger of old – the three had been involved in a game featuring the African Leopards, a team drawn from all corners of the continent – and Griffiths made him an offer far too good to refuse. "I had to turn Eddie down, which is never easy," Burger says. "Luckily, my agent was the guy making the phone calls."
He played the games that mattered in the final third of last season, forming an alliance of all the talents with Andy Saull, the brilliant young breakaway, and Ernst Joubert, by some distance the classiest footballing No 8 in the Premiership. Saull is currently nursing a busted hand, but Burger's instinctive feel for the open-side position has minimised the fallout. If Venter treasures him, it is with good reason.
Tomorrow, he resumes his conflict with a pack of Northampton forwards who proved as fierce and dynamic as any last term and have taken Leicester and Bath to the cleaners in the first three weeks of the current campaign. Relations between the two clubs have been strained for a while, and as Saracens were the only side to win at Franklin's Gardens in the 2009-10 season, this meeting in Watford has all the makings of a serious set-to. Typically, Burger is in "bring it on" mood.
"Northampton play with a lot of intensity, a lot of passion – I was very impressed by the way they went about their work against Bath last week – and they give you nothing for free," he says. "But we play with intensity and passion too, and we go into this game knowing that it's a case of working our balls off or facing the consequences. That's the way we like it. There's a special spirit here and everyone has bought into it. We know what we want, and we're prepared to give everything we have in order to get it."
Big-game hunters: Rugby's fearsome farmers
(Blue Bulls and South Africa)
The Springboks' master of the dark arts farms a stretch of wide-open veld north of Pretoria, shooting wildebeest for dinner – and using the leftovers for biltong.
(Munster and Ireland)
The veteran prop was taking in the first cut of silage on the family farm near Limerick when the injury-hit Lions summoned him to South Africa last year.
(Taranaki and New Zealand)
The tough All Black hooker breeds merino sheep near Patearoa, a small settlement in the South Island. His parents christened the farm "Stonehenge".
(Leicester and England)
A World Cup winner in 2003, the tight-head prop looks after cattle and sheep on land near Market Harborough. The lambing season tends to coincide with the Six Nations.
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