Few people better embody the values of our great game than Saracens’ and Namibia’s Jacques Burger. A fearless fighter on the field, a true gentleman off it, and uniquely passionate about every aspect of the sport, Burger will go down in history as a wonderful servant to both club and international rugby.
At Saracens he was part of a new injection of players that brought success to the club the likes of which it had never seen before, winning three Premiership titles in six years and a European Champions Cup last season. He talks incredibly fondly of his time there and about what makes the club so special.
“It’s not one specific thing. During the first year I never experienced anything like it before. When Brendan Venter and Edward Griffiths took over, it wasn’t just a rugby club. It was more than that. It was very personal. They made the effort to know everybody personally, to look after their families and to bring the squad together as a group of friends. We talk a lot about this friendship thing, but when I went into work it felt like family. You will do more for someone you like and you actually care about. I think they got that right.
“Obviously we’ve got great coaches and as for the technical part of it, the amount of time that goes into stats – there’s one guy who just works on stats – they analyse every single bit of every single team. Technically, we were fed information every day and meetings are incredibly detailed. They put in a lot of work; the coaching staff plays a massive role in the way they take it all on.
“We, as players, were quite lucky in that if you do your bit and train hard, the club will look after you very well.
“It’s something you want to belong to; you want to be part of that group. It helps to have great players. They’ve signed some really good players in the past and they’ve got a really good squad, but I think the culture, the coaching aspect of it, the friendship and the family and the willingness to work just a little bit harder than everybody else is what makes this club pretty special.”
With unprecedented success last season – Saracens are the reigning English and European champions – the question now is: where do they go next?
“We’ve been on the right track for the last seven years; I think it’s been great. We haven’t won all the trophies but we’ve been there or thereabouts to challenge for them and we’ve been better every time.
“It’s not just something that’s happened over night, it’s been a massive process. The challenge now is how do you back it up when you’ve won everything? That’s going to be the hard thing, to win again. It might not happen this year but I think as long as the mindset is there and the hunger to be successful then it will happen once more.
“I think it’s very rewarding that a lot of the squad is still very young, the English internationals are all still very young, they’ve still got a lot to achieve. England are doing brilliantly and the players want to impress and they want to be part of that England set-up. The club will benefit from that.
“There’s a squad of younger players coming through as well, that’s definitely going to be part of the England set-up soon. With their hunger and their determination they’re at the right club with the way it is so driven.
“The culture and the systems are in place in the club, we just need to keep doing what we’re doing, basically.”
Although Burger has enjoyed a long and successful career, it has not come easy. Throughout his time he suffered over sixty injuries, some particularly serious. Despite the demands he placed on his body through his uncompromising way of playing, Burger was still able to keep coming back.
“The biggest test in your career is when you have serious injuries and you’re trying to bounce back. The year after you return you take a lot of criticism, because when you do start playing again you’re struggling to find your way, you’re off the pace, you’re not playing as well as you should be playing, it’s natural, and that’s the nature of the game.
“For me I found it incredibly hard to come back. A couple of times I knew I wouldn’t be able to play for a long time when I had serious surgery, so they were really dark periods of my life.
“When I did get back and I started playing again it wasn’t as great as you thought it was going to be as you’re not as good as you were, you’re just that little bit off, you’re in a lot of pain and you’re not moving as well as you used to move. You’ve got to fight; your character has got to stick through. You’ve got to keep working hard and that’s what I did.
“When I had my first serious injury I knew I wasn’t done and I wanted to play rugby again. I was fortunate enough that I could find a way back. It took me a while, but by the end of the year I was playing well again.
“However, you need a club that is going to back you and believe in you. As soon as the CEO at Saracens knew I was going to be out for about two years he offered me a two year contract straight away, so that put me at ease and I think that’s what made me want to play well for them and made me want to repay them in that sense.
“I think a lot of players fall away through serious injuries because for clubs it’s a financial and business thing. They can just get the next young guy who’s thirsty for success. However, because I’d done well for the club, the club wanted to look after me. When I did get back it was well worth it to stick it out and go through it all.”
Although Burger will likely be best remembered in Europe for his exploits in the English Premiership and the Champions Cup, the cause of Namibian rugby is very close to his heart and he explains what it meant to him to play for his country.
“Namibia is where I grew up and all my friends and my family live over here. Growing up you’ve got one goal in mind and that is to play for your country.
“You don’t really know as a kid where Namibia is in comparison to the rest of the world, you just see your national side and you just want to wear that shirt.”
Being a professional player meant Jacques did not have to go through the same financial sacrifices that some of his team mates did, many of whom are part-time players, and this is something he is very keen to point out.
“I was fortunate enough to play at professional clubs where I was earning a living out of it, so I was just playing for Namibia now, it was nothing financial for me whatsoever. I didn’t have to work 8 to 5 like most of the other boys do. They’re working all day and then they do training in the evening which is quite tough, but for me personally playing for my country was a matter of honour.
“Going to two World Cups, every time I stood there singing my anthem I was extremely proud. I’m Namibian, I feel Namibian. We’re such a close community really; we’re only about 2.5 or 3 million people which is quite small. Everyone is quite close and they want to be successful and play for their country. We just want to do our families and our friends proud.”
Namibia is still very much a minnow in terms of test rugby, but Jacques is dedicated to improving the status of his home as an international side. He acknowledges there are challenges, but at the same time the passion for rugby in the country is already prevalent.
“I think we need more players and professional set-ups. Money helps! If you have proper finances and sponsors you can set up proper training facilities, you can get stuck into local clubs. It’s a challenge financially, but the good thing here is the people love rugby.
“We have a close connection to South Africa, we always watch South African teams and people really want to play rugby. All the kids want to be professional rugby players, they’re perceived like movie stars over here. People see the glamorous life and they want that opportunity, that’s the great thing.
“There’re loads of youngsters coming through, but there are limited opportunities for them to get outside of the country and play professional rugby. If we can get some more players outside in Europe or South Africa that would be incredibly beneficial.”
Now retired from playing the sport, Burger is keen to make his mark on growing Namibian rugby in any way he can.
“Ideally the best scenario would be to have professional clubs here but that’s something very far away. But if professional guys like me come back and step in we can make a difference.
“I’ve got plans within the next year or so, to try and be involved, even if it’s not the Namibian national team itself. I want to do something with the youth teams or the clubs and try to pass on the knowledge of some of the great coaches I’ve worked under, to pass on those values and skills to a young group of players and coaches.
“That’s the important thing: professional players that do come back should try and make a difference, so hopefully I can help. Next year we’ll get stuck into it and hopefully we can do some good stuff in Namibia.”
If Burger puts in even half the energy that he did in his playing career into changing Namibian rugby then they will genuinely be a force to be reckoned with. One of rugby’s true warriors is gearing up for battle once more.
Paul Wassell, Pundit Arena