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The World Cup's hardest man?

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Ben Dirs | 07:16 UK time, Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Rotorua

Jacques Burger chuckles when I ask him to take me through his current list of injuries and ailments. "I've done my knee," says the Namibia captain and budding Saracens great. "I had a 'scope' on that the other day. I've got a bit of a dodgy elbow and I've got a couple of ankles that are a bit loose. But, all in all, nothing serious."

It is this sanguine attitude towards the kind of pain that would have most of us confined to bed enquiring after our mummies that has earned Burger a reputation as perhaps the hardest man in the English Premiership: Saracens' enforcer-in-chief and players' player of last season, the 28-year-old forward is the kind of man who would crawl over broken glass to triple-up on a tackle.

Possessing a battered head that points in a hundred different directions, if Picasso had painted Burger when the Spanish master was at his most surreal, the end result would have been a perfectly symmetrical representation of the ideal face.

"My wife thinks I'm good-looking," says Burger to another journalist, one who is far braver than I am.

Burger (far left) lines up with his team before the game against FijiBurger (far left) lines up with his team before the game against Fiji. Photo: Getty

Burger is the inspirational leader of the lowest-ranked side at the World Cup, a bull shark in a very small pond. But it was not pre-ordained to be this way. His is the story of how sheer hard work and bloody-mindedness can take someone from rugby's shallows and transplant them to the very heights of the game.

You might call Burger the patron saint of minnows.

"It's been a long, long road," says Burger, who, until 2004, was a sales rep in his native Windhoek. "After school, I played for Free State in South Africa before I was offered a contract with [Currie Cup side] the Griquas and then made it into the Namibian team.

"Luckily, I got the opportunity to play under [former Saracens head coach] Brendan Venter for an African Leopards team against the British Army. When my contract ended with [South African provincial giants] the Blue Bulls, it was at the same time as Saracens needed a back-up loose-forward. So that was that. Now England's my second home."

While to Burger's team-mates he is a legend in their midst, Burger's attitude towards them is no less reverential. "Most of them have got 8am-5pm jobs, just like I used to have, are training in the afternoons and before work in the morning. Some guys have quit their jobs to be here, some guys are on unpaid leave. That's absolute commitment."

On Wednesday, Burger's Namibia take on Samoa in a Pool D encounter in Rotorua, rich in Maori culture and boasting dramatic hot springs and geysers but a quieter nook of the World Cup festival nonetheless. At the lakeside hotel that is Namibia's base, players wander past and fix me with an expression that says "what could this bloke want with us?"

Indeed, Burger's only frustration is not the change from the ultra-professionalism set-up at Saracens, with whom he won the Premiership title last season, it is that some of his team-mates do not believe they should be here.

"When you leak so many points, you do get frustrated, but only because I believe all the guys in my team are really good players," says the unremitting open-side flanker. "Sometimes it feels like they don't know how good they are. We can compete against the best but we don't - and that gets to me sometimes.

"There was a temptation in the past to try to do too much, try to do things out of the ordinary, and I've had to tell myself, 'that's not the way I play'. So you won't see me dropping back into the pocket and trying for the odd drop-goal. I've just got to do my job, pick up the guys and inspire them.

"If I don't play well as the captain, who are the guys going to look up to?"

Namibia came into this World Cup having conceded an average of 64 points per game, so their 49-25 defeat by Fiji last Saturday was at least a step in the right direction. That said, with Samoa, South Africa and Wales to come in the space of 12 days, that average could easily be maintained.

Burger is hit by Viliame Veikoso of Fiji during their World Cup encounterBurger is hit by Viliame Veikoso of Fiji. Photo: Getty

But Burger senses the less established sides are closing the gap, in large part because the professionalism he and others have learnt from some of the most knowledgeable coaches in the world is being ploughed into the lower reaches of the game.

"That's why the gap is narrowing, because lots of guys from the smaller nations are playing for professional sides now and putting some of their knowledge back," says Burger. "There are still a lot of financial things that need to be sorted out for the smaller nations to get where they want to be but it's going in the right direction.

"I've said to a few guys that it's amazing how your world can change in four matches at a World Cup. You saw how our fly-half [Theuns Kotze, who scored three drop-goals] did against Fiji. Doors could open for him. Hopefully, he'll get scooped up and he can put what he learns back into the national team."

When we shake hands at the conclusion of the interview, Burger comes over all bashful and says: "Thanks for all the nice things you've said about me." Lovely man. Unless you are an opposition fly-half, in which case he is wickedness personified.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    Maybe he has an English grandfather or other relation so we can claim him for England, we certainly need him!

  • Comment number 2.

    Well done Jacques Burger.

    Nice blog Ben, love to read profiles about players from the lower ranked nations, they are often more interesting, as they are closer to the amateur scene and have usually had a life outside of rugby.

    Whatever happened to the Namibian guy who fought a lion?

  • Comment number 3.

    Ben is right. Jacques is becoming a bit of a legend at Sarries. But 'hardness' isn't really the reason (although I wouldn't like him smashing into me!). In a team where work-rate is prized almost above everything else, he tops the list every game. He is clearly delighted to be playing for us (and over the moon to be captaining Namibia) and feels very lucky. But actually, Jacques, we're the lucky ones who get to watch your untiring commitment week after week.

  • Comment number 4.

    @2 - I imagine you mean Schalk van der Merwe, a game warden at the Harnas sanctuary run by his family. The "fighting a lion" incident happened when he leapt into a cage to try to rescue his sister's pet baboon. I've no idea of his current status, but since he was 29 when he was at the 2003 WC, I'd guess he's retired from international rugby, at least.

  • Comment number 5.

    This is what Rugby is all about. Mates playing for mates. Commitment to the game, not because of money or branding potential but for the love of it.

    The Danny Ciprianis, Sonny Bill Williams and James O'Connors of this world would do well to take a leaf out of Burger's book.

  • Comment number 6.

    #1 Typical English mentality...see someone good and try claim them. Im pretty sure England have some fantasic players if given a chance. Quit shopping abroad! Shop local.

  • Comment number 7.

    @ 6.james mathew

    I really don't think #1 is serious you plonker. Claiming overseas players is not typical british mentality, it's part of the game in England now because we have so many over here for so long. I'm sure MJ would pick all 100% English if they were the best, but if there are lots of English qualified players who are available then it's tough not to pick them. All English fans certainly don't prefer qualified English players in the team, but not much we can do apart from get behind them and support them

  • Comment number 8.

    Thank you Ben for this brilliant blog. I know you have been getting a bit of stick in your previous blogs, but this article is different from what we usually get and very inspiring. I am very much NOT a sarries fan and used to be fairly indifferent towards Jacques Burger; this article has changed my opinion of him.

    It is great seeing the 'smaller' nations doing comparatively well this world cup (also a bit unnerving being a Scotsman) I wish a way could be found to maintain their international presence between World Cups.

  • Comment number 9.

    Can England beat Georgia without Lawes?

  • Comment number 10.

    It's tough for countries like Namibia, they have so few players and such little money that they even had to cancel two of their World Cup warm-up games. Rugby seems to be one of the sports where countries find it hardest to break through and compete with the more established sides.

    I wrote a blog on Namibia and Burger at the beginning of last month here: www.sportslastplace.blogspot.com

  • Comment number 11.

    Interesting blog Ben, enjoyed the read! Have to agree with others that its nice to read about a different aspect of the RWC rather than Eng not reaching their potential rubbish! Cheers

  • Comment number 12.

    Great blog Ben. Nice to have an insight into a player that doesn't play for a home nation or a favourite!

  • Comment number 13.

    Nice to see the real sportsmen are still around. That Namibia team sound like they merit a book, a documentary and a movie. Great blog more like this please. Find the guys who know what it is about!

  • Comment number 14.

    @ 6 James change your tune. But well said 7. I needn't add more.
    And yes England can beat Georgia without Lawes. He probably wouldn't have been selected for both Gerogia AND Romainia so no biggy there.

    Jacques Burger, if only every player played with his heart and determination. Legend.

    Will be cheering Namibia on in all their games!

  • Comment number 15.

    Perhaps modern day footballers could learn a thing or two about gritting throught he pain rather than being out "injured" for 3 months with a broken fingernail. great to see these types of players and they are an inspiration to everyone that hard work and perseverance can make all the difference....and that applies to every walk of life not just the sporting arena. If the people rioting in london had this work ethic then they would get out of their slums rather quickly .

  • Comment number 16.

    Reminds me of the knight in MP and the Holy Grail - "It's only a flesh wound!!"

  • Comment number 17.

    Is that not Gavin Henson with a wig on???

  • Comment number 18.

    Great blog.

    What an example to the rest of the world (of rugby) he is. It is always nice to hear about stories such as this.
    The world cup is turning out to be brilliant so far, I love watching games as a nuetral.

    Off topic
    Hopefully we (the boks) can keep it clean and raise our game. The Welsh had a storming game and full credit to them for the way they controled the match from start to finish. Im just glad they couldnt turn their dominance into points after some outstanding defence from us.

    Also @ #16, I love that sketch.

    Glory Glory to rugby :-D

  • Comment number 19.

    Good article Ben.

    Pleased to see Jacques Burger getting a bit of the recognition. He is a real warrior. Nice bloke too, very down to earth and as friendly as Ben says.

  • Comment number 20.

    At last, the antidote to Gavin Henson!

    If more proffessional players were like him then the game would be better.

  • Comment number 21.

    Nice article. Loved how Burger said that the thing that frustrates him is that his team mates don't know how good they are. Seems straight out of the old school and I know that one of the minnows had to be in this group but would have been good to see if Namibia could grab a win in this world cup but can't see it happening in this group.

  • Comment number 22.

    As a welshman (Very proud at that) I agree wholeheartedly with Hookers! Great rid of the overhyped celebrities and lets get some true grit. Henson didn't deserve to be in the team - No I in team!

    By the way its not Hookers do it best it definitely Loose Head Props do it best!

  • Comment number 23.

    Hmm Gavin Henson, is he that bloke from the Batchelor? Didn't know he played rugby as well...

    Good read this. Goes to show as well it doesn't matter whether you play for the World Champions or the team with one of the worst records in the World Cup, you play with pride and you give it your all. If you do that and you can only get better.

    It's been great to see the gap between the big teams and the so-called lesser teams closing as well. No-one wants to see the All Blacks win 110-5, its much better to see each team providing a different sort of test.

  • Comment number 24.

    Great article Ben,
    I think teams like Namibia, Japan, Russia etc have been treated unfairly at the world cup, being forced to play more games in a shorter period of time than the big teams such as NZ, Australia and England.
    Surely the average viewer would prefer to see a closer competition between the sides than to see an bunch of 80-0s?

  • Comment number 25.

    @24

    Thats just the way it goes, and it happens in all sports. The best are rewarded for being the best.

    Seedings affect most top level sports.

    Having 5 teams in the group will always mean that someone loses out. And imagine if England (or SA to be diplomatic) had a midweek game, we would be inundated with whingers saying it is unfair on their team.

  • Comment number 26.

    Nice story from a guy who clearly continues to enjoy his sport and is grateful he's making a living out of it.

    If he's good enough and he qualifies why shouldn't we select him (not that I'm suggesting we should, simply that we could)? Lets not forget that the "Greatest Rugby Nation" of them all has been fielding teams with players available for selection based on residency rules rather than country of birth for years - do the names Tuigamala, Muliaina & Rokocoko sound familiar?

  • Comment number 27.

    At the last world cup, I think, there was a story about a Namibia player who used to spend eight hours traveling each way just to train and lived the most "boys own" life. Also remember a story that Martin Johnstons's mother smokes a pipe. Hope the stories are true, so much better than the claptrap you get usually with players prancing around on TV programs or going to get the nails done in the salon and that is not including the depravity that is the soccer player.

  • Comment number 28.

    Forheavensake

    Ur an idiot bringing out old cliches without knowing what ur talking about. God I wish people would actually take the time to know what they are talking about before opening their mouths.

    The fact you are trying to compare someone who was brought up and played professional rugby in the country of his birth to people whose parents moved to another country when they were infants shows ur not only bitter but selective as well.

    And don't get me started on what the english are doing at the moment

  • Comment number 29.

    And not a kiwi by the way

  • Comment number 30.

    Ben a decent blog and many posters have summed it up nicely.

    True, the minnows are slowly reducing the gap to the second tier nations. None of the minnows will ever win a WC but who cares as they can be a joy to watch at times. Of course they are going to be found wanting at the end of the group stages. four games and thin squads ensure that.

    By and large the first group games had a bit for everyone, some good rugby, yes some poor rugby but competeive matches and a good amount of nail biting drama.

  • Comment number 31.

    Go Burger and Namibia, will be my second team from now on at the RWC!

  • Comment number 32.

    I think a lot of cracks are showing in the NZ team now, its so strange that once it comes WC...they crumble! Kinda like Jimmy White

  • Comment number 33.

    I crown you King Burger, Jacques. You behave like a true royal. They could do with the likes of you at Buck House, or down the road at Ten Downward Street. We're in an almighty mess here at the moment in Bad Ol' Blighty and your never say die attitude is sadly lacking not only here at home but also out there amongst our lot in Kiwiland.

    Just a converted drop kick or penalty would have left poor England in a mess, still less a converted try against an exuberant Argentinian side.

    Early bath all round?....nah, can't be bothered, I'll have a quick wash instead !!

  • Comment number 34.

    Good article, this is why we have the minnows involved in the first place. There are so few platforms for the Georgians, Namibians, Russians, Romanians and the like to show what they can do, to get onto the radar of scouts from pro clubs who have until recent years been far too insular in their considerations.

    Every world cup throws up a couple who go on to become pros and as Burger has said can then plough that knowledge and be an inspiration for the game in their home nations. Little by little we have seen the game develop internationally because of this. Consider Argentina, now a genuine top level team on par with Wales, Scotland and Ireland; Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, Italy, how much closer are those four to the top nations now than in 1987? I would wager a lot and the USA and Canada are not that far behind them.

    Georgia, Romania, Russia, Portugal, Uruguay, Namibia, Kenya and Japan can all play to a decent level and hold their heads up high, very few games would they ship 100 points like they used to.





    One other note, can we leave out all the crap about how he's showing Henson a thing or two?

    Henson is a very good rugby player with an unfortunately brittle body that hasn't allowed him to play through injury (he tried and got hurt even worse). Admittedly he hasn't seemed to help himself sometimes with his choices in life but I've never seen him give anything less than 100% when he was actually on the field.

    Had he not had the injury problems there is a very good chance that he would have had less issues with the mental side as well.

  • Comment number 35.

    @#5 I think it's very unfair to suggest Sonny Bill Williams only cares about money. He turned down a $3million dollar contract to stay in France for a $500K contract to play for the All Blacks, just because he wanted the honour of that jersey

  • Comment number 36.

    Wow people are bringing up Englands selection in even this thread. Serious chip!

  • Comment number 37.

    This bloke is awesome. Has the ultimate rugby attitude and deserves as many accolades as he gets - Namibia will be my '2nd team' at this RWC because of him, closely followed by USA because Todd Clever is equally impressive.

    Great article Ben - so refreshing to see real articles, rather than regurgitated press-releases and non-event articles.

    At one point today the Daily Telegraph had FOUR [4] articles regarding the fact that a few players had gone bungee-jumping.....I mean, pleeeeeease. One article would have been surplus to requirements, the whole thing is a non-event. Dick Best was doing his Mumsy impression saying it might be dangerous..!!!
    If we want a squad to play well together, you have to let them enjoy themselves/bond etc. I'd be seriously disappointed if they weren't doing it.

  • Comment number 38.

    @forheavensake : Deeply ironic name, seeing as that's exactly what I said after reading your comment. Well, the polite version at any rate... This comes up every World Cup, so I guess it's cut-n-paste time again.

    Lets take those 3 names you listed:

    Inga Tuigamala, born Samoa, migrated to NZ aged 3, learned to play in NZ, AB's debut in '89, switched to Samoa in '96 after a stint playing league.

    Mils Muliaina, born Samoa, emigrated to NZ aged 2, only ever played in NZ.

    Joe Rokocoko, born Fiji, emigrated to NZ aged 5, only ever played in NZ.

    The AB's scouts are so good we spotted their talent before they could even walk properly. Yeah right. These guys consider themselves New Zealanders, it's the only country they know. They're proud of their island heritage but they are all Kiwi to the bone. You want to tell them they can't play for NZ?

    What you have to realise is NZ is a nation of immigrants. NZ has a resident population of 4.4 million, with a further 0.5 million residing overseas. Of the resident population 23% were born overseas, and somewhere between a third and half of all Kiwi's have one or more parents born overseas. Only 70% of the population are of European descent, 15% are Maori, 9% Asian, and 7% Polynesian. The diversity is partly a result of the colonial era when many Pacific Islands were under NZ administration which granted special residency and/or citizenship rights, which many took advantage of in the 70's and 80's to give their children a better opportunity in life. I grew up with many such kids, they're my closest mates, and they're as Kiwi as I am.

  • Comment number 39.

    Kind of happened across this by chance (what, the Beeb cover more than football!?!), but can I say what a well written blog, coming from a great angle. Your peers could (should) learn something Mr Dirs.

  • Comment number 40.

    Hand Up for Burger, so far i didn't miss any Rugby World Cup game and watching him putting those guys down really inspire me and If there could be an Best Tackle that it should be him. Hands Up For The Giant!!!Jacques Burger...

  • Comment number 41.

    Once again I apologise to Mr Dirs. A well thought out and written article.
    However, sadly , almost all of the points gained are lost by the almost hysteric anti Wayne Barnes crusade that he seems to be on.

    The report from Namibia v Samoa includes the following lines:-

    "With 10 minutes remaining, Samoa were awarded a penalty try by referee Wayne Barnes - the man caught up in controversy in the match between Wales and South Africa when he failed to award a potentially match-winning James Hook penalty.

    However, Namibia never gave up and after a wave of attacks in the dying minutes, Kotze, who dropped three goals in the 49-25 defeat by Fiji, scored under the posts.

    Samoa: Williams, Tagicakibau, G Pisi, Mapusua, Tuilagi, T Pisi, Fotuali'i; Taulafo, Schwalger, Perenise, Leo, Thompson, Tuifua, Fa'asavalu, Stowers. Replacements: Fuimaono-Sapolu for Mapusua (49), Lavea for T Pisi (27), Poluleuligaga for Fotuali'i (49), Paulo for Schwalger (56), Tekori for Thompson (62), Treviranus for Tuifua (28). Not Used: Johnston.

    Sin Bin: Williams (39).

    Namibia: Botha, Dames, D van Wyk, Van Zyl, Winkler, Kotze, Jantjies, Redelinghuys, Horn, Larson, Koll, Franken, Kitshoff, Burger, van Lill, Esterhuyse. Replacements: Du Toit for Redelinghuys (58), O'Callerghan for Horn (60), Esterhuyse for Franken (50), Van Neel for Esterhuyse (58). Not Used: D de la Harpe, R de la Harpe, Losper.

    Sin Bin: Kitshoff (65).

    Att: 19,500

    Ref: Romain Poite (France)."

    Let us leave aside whether the penalty try decision was correct or not (probably, as there is no use of the words, contentious, controversial, incorrectly awarded) but someone seems to have got a small dark haired French ref mixed up with a tall, blond haired English one. Either Mr Dirs or the copy writer who adds the teams etc. at the end of the article. Having checked out the Rugby World Cup site it is the copy writer who is correct.

    Please don't let the facts get in the way of a good story.

  • Comment number 42.

    John of Burgundy - Yep, my mistake, Wayne Barnes was down as the ref on the team sheet that was handed out at the ground but I should have spotted the difference (although, I was up in the stands with no video screen to hand). But, I have to pick you up on something - "almost hysteric anti Wayne Barnes crusade that he seems to be on". What are you on about? I mentioned him once in my post-Wales-SA blog, and that was to say the video evidence of the penalty was "inconclusive". Fair criticism is OK, but not great when you start making things up.

  • Comment number 43.

    Excellent article, the guy really is turning into something of a cult hero at Saracens. I echo the words of a poster above in that Saracens game-plan is about grinding the opposition team at the breakdown with a better work-rate, and being steadfast in defence. Burger epitomises this.

    On another note, I hope your well Beshocked. What site are you on now for all things Saracens?

  • Comment number 44.

    Why does Gavin Henson,England's so call foreign players and NZ's pacific islanders have to be mentioned in every article about rugby?

    Emiatss I am good thanks. Yourself? I am either on 606 v2 or the Saracens unofficial forum.

    Agree with you that Jacques Burger is making a name for himself at Saracens. I am glad the French clubs haven't lured him away yet.

  • Comment number 45.

    Great interview Ben. As a Sarries fan, I have had the pleasure of meet Jacques on several occasions. Appearance aside he is one of the nicest guys you could meet. A great sense of humour, and a truly inspirational player. If he was playing for one of the top nations, we would here his name all the time. He does so much work around the pitch that is unseen. Kind of reminds of another Sarries hero, who goes by the name of Richard Hill.

  • Comment number 46.

    He must be at least 31st hardest man at RWC after all the Wales 30, as all we seem to hear (mainly from them) is how they are the fittest team ever on the planet (..umm? odd then how they faded in the last 10 mins against the 'ageing' SA team and got smashed off the ball so often?). Of course Wales were the only team to do fitness training before the WRC, maybe the way they talk about themselves they ought to come on the pitch with red cloaks and their underpants on the outside. ...and as for 'hardest man' - Jacques is well hard no mistake but they all are in the forwards these days, especially the front rows (they are the 'hardest in my book - I say that based on 3 positions I was most scared of ever playing!!), so to call one harder than anyone else is a bit of a school boy bragging type of article which should be beyond the BBC.

  • Comment number 47.

    @38 I'll preface this with its a bit off topic and that I am a rugby fan, England, Wales(by marriage) and NZ (by choice) fan. I think the main problem isn't that NZ have players who weren't born in NZ its that the rest of us haven't caught up with what is happening all around the world these days - that is immigration. Its all good. If NZ have got a few good players its because they have been as lucky as the English have been with polish plumbers. Thing is stop going on about it. If someone chooses to make their home somewhere so that they can play for that side its as much of an honour as it is to be born there.
    Its a shame that this thread has had so many non Burger posts.. His attitude is exemplary and any kids growing up wanting to play rugby or just get on in life could do worse than take note of his attitude. He puts very many of us to shame! Some of those old 80 point wins were actually good matches, I remember Japan being on the receiving end of one and to the very last minute they never gave up. That is the spirit Burger seems to embody, just keep trying. Its incredible and its what makes the RWC wonderful!

  • Comment number 48.

    MOst of the pacific Island players in New Zanland and ABs grew up in the country and had the advanagte of enjoying the pre-existing high level of school-boy and club competition and the general culture of rugby in NZ not to mention of course the excellent rugby training camps for those who show talent!

 

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