Jacques Burger is afraid of nothing. Completely fearless, he says. Then he remembers. “No, but I am afraid of things off the pitch, I promise you that. Oooh, snakes for instance. I don’t like snakes very much,” he says with a theatrical shudder.
“But on the pitch, nothing. Especially now my career is close to being done, I enjoy it so much, that physical battle between you and the other guy. The brave will stand up and if you’re not brave enough, you’ll fall away and get found out. I love that bit about it and I love the physical confrontation.”
His eyes seem to bulge happily; he’s almost salivating. Bring on a big black wall of the best players in the world and Burger will want to crash into them all. Time and again.
So tonight at London’s Olympic Stadium, fired with a passion at playing for his beloved Namibia, it may appear at times as if everyone’s favourite one-man threshing machine is tackling the world champions almost single-handedly.
This was supposed to be the Rugby World Cup’s most romantic tale before the Brave Blossoms wrote an unsurpassable script. First things first; when you ask the Namibians’ coach, former Wales international Phil Davies, whether anybody in his camp really has the remotest belief they could do a Japan, his pause, smile and suggestion that “it’s a tough ask but there’ll be a lot of enthusiasm” says everything.
Yet with Burger, you could almost believe that no cause, not even a mismatch of this gargantuan scale, with Namibia fielding eight amateurs in their 23, is lost to him.
He is his nation’s totem, the one followed with blind loyalty by his teammates, a keen mixture of ‘have boots, will travel’ journeymen pros scattered far and wide and a bunch of throwback amateurs back home in Africa who’ll get up at 4am to go training before their day jobs on the farm or the campus or the factory floor.
The part-timers talk of him with awe and affection and yet Burger sounds even more humbled at their sacrifices. Because Namibia have guys like Johnnie Redelinghuys, a 31-year-old prop who’ll drive over 200 miles a day to get to training sessions in the capital Windhoek, while trying to run his construction business, and often wonders “Why the hell am I doing all this?”
He does it for nights like this. In the kingdom of Bolt and Farah, of sporting legends, against the grandest rugby team in the world. This, he says, is when you want Burger in your corner.
Redelinghuys has known Burger since he was a kid, going through the age groups, studying at college together and eventually scrumming down for the national team. Burger the farmer has not changed. “A good guy, a star who doesn’t act like one,” smiles Redelinghuys. “And still one crazy bastard.” He thinks back to a crucial 2006 World Cup qualifier against Morocco in Casablanca. Of all the places in all the world to start a rugby battle….
“Jacques put in a series of monster hits and when the Moroccans got more and more discouraged and saw they weren’t going to win, they started to punch us up, and I’ve still got pictures with me today of how they beat the hell out of Jacques. Broken nose and bloody eye, but he never took a step back.”
Ah, so that was where that famous broken nose came from? “Oh no, that’s just one of many times,” laughs Redelinghuys of the face that launched a thousand hits.
There’s a comical video that Burger posted on social media after the team arrived in England showing him shaking his head around violently and blaming it on the effects of a bumpy flight.
Ah, that was no turbulence, laugh his teammates. That was just Jacques imitating what opponents look like when they get ‘Burgered’. He still possesses, as one commentator once observed memorably, “a higher work-rate than a spaniel full of blue Smarties” and he still cares not a jot for his own well-being when hurling himself 110% and often wildly into the fray.
After Burger’s nine operations in six seasons, Saracens’ director of rugby, former Irish international Mark McCall says the player’s best friend remains his ice machine. His clubmates would probably agree with Owen Farrell’s affectionate assessment after one of his now fabled tackling rampages throttled Clermont in the 2014 Heineken Cup semi-final that “Jacques’s mental, to be fair”.
He has become a cult figure, partly because of his obvious, almost childlike enjoyment of the big bang. On Twitter, #ThingsJacquesBurgerCanTackle even trended. Burger could tackle rhinos, Sherman tanks, juggernauts or Thunderbird 2, Tweeters speculated. “But I quite liked the one with the picture of the whole Northampton squad,” he laughs.
You can see, as he cuts such a charismatic, friendly and engaging figure down at Namibia’s country hotel in Cobham, why he is so popular. His teammates sense that, to finally break their World Cup duck after 15 matches and 15 defeats - that’s an average loss per game of 54 points — over four tournaments, only he can turn the tide.
Things are changing, they say. In 2003, when Australia destroyed Namibia 142-0, it was the massacre of amateur innocents; now, with funding help from World Rugby, Davies’s coaching expertise and opportunities to train with the Springboks, the squad contains more pros than part-timers. Yet still they need a galvanising force.
So Darryl de la Harpe, one of the amateurs who manages his dad’s cylinder company, is just one taking on board Burger’s exhortations that, even if victory over the All Blacks is a pipe dream, every Namibian out there can savour priceless mini-victories tonight.
De la Harpe says they all dream of a “Ngwenya moment”, the chance for a place in World Cup folklore just like a little-known Zimbabwean-born USA flyer Takudzwa Ngwenya did in 2007 when, unthinkably, he outpaced the world’s deadiest winger, Bryan Habana, on the outside to score that wondrous try against South Africa.
So how about the idea of him shooting past a flailing Richie McCaw for a score, I ask. “Ha!” he laughs uproariously. “Don’t worry, we have Jacques, he will sort him out!”
Yes, Jacques will sort them. It’s always down to Jacques. At the last World Cup, they took 80-point thrashings twice but Jacques kept coming, never stopped battling and was thus voted one of the tournament’s five best players in a team getting smashed.
Well, now in his last season, he wants more. He covets that elusive World Cup win, maybe against Georgia or Tonga.
“I want us to compete, to have great moments, to be able to hold our heads up at the end,” he says. The All Blacks are in his sights for the very first, and last, time.
“Always wanted to meet the haka, then test myself against the very best.” Yet, as their coach Steve Hansen concedes, if any unsuspecting All Black dallies near the breakdown tonight, they are liable to get “smashed” by a blindside force of nature. “He’s a very special player, Burger,” he shrugs.
Someone will find out, bruisingly, just how special tonight. Unless, of course, the All Blacks have come armed with a bag of cobras…
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