Apr 28, 2016
Feature: ' The Strongest of Men in a Strong Man’s Game'.
Legendary rugby writer Chris Hewett pens a tribute to Jacques Burger ahead of the Namibian's final ever game this Sunday.
Back in 2010, when this writer met Jacques Burger for the first time and listened to him talk – and talk, and talk – about his abiding love of the great outdoors and his plan to farm 14,000 acres of wild southern African land in his native Namibia the moment his professional sporting career came to an end, The Independent newspaper carried a long feature under the headline: “The New Toughest Guy In Rugby?” Never was a question mark more superfluous. You could be as blind as a bat and still identify Burger as the toughest of the tough, simply by listening to the percussive sound of his tackling.
Three years later, almost to the day, the fact of the matter was underlined in a second interview. This time, the heart-and-soul flanker par excellence had just returned from a long lay-off following serious injury. (More superfluity: had the injury not been serious almost to the point of limb-threatening, there would have been no lay-off). Burger had played, with complete disregard for his own physical well-being, through the 2011 World Cup in the knowledge that his right knee was crumbling away. “There was so much bone damage, I was starting to go bow-legged,” he said during our discussion. “The operation was a major one: they called the procedure a high tibial osteotomy and basically, it involved the surgeon changing the shape of my leg and putting the kneecap in a different place.”
The eyes water as the very thought of it, yet Burger, a priceless asset for Saracens before that global tournament, somehow appreciated in value in the years that followed. Had he called it a day in 2013 and headed for the edge of the Kalahari Desert with a shovel under one arm and a hoe under the other, he would have been revered as a Saracens “great”. By playing another three seasons, winning selection for the biggest games wholly on merit despite the hunger and the quality of his younger back-row rivals, he completed his ascent to the very top of the pyramid.
What is it that separates the special rugby player from the massed ranks of merely outstanding practitioners? That question can be answered in a hundred different ways, but we know this much: there is more to being special than having a skill-set to die for. Rugby is as much about the abstractions and indefinables of contact sport – guts, commitment, a pain threshold so high that it is lost somewhere among the clouds – as it is about the ability to wrong-foot an entire defensive line with a blind cut-out pass or a swivel of the hips. Jacques Burger was the strongest of men in a strong man’s game. 14,000 acres? Pah. He’ll have the whole lot dug before breakfast.
Be there for Jacques' final game this Sunday. Tickets available here.