After a terrific season at English Premiership side, Saracens, Namibia’s captain at this year’s World Cup and English Premiership Players’ Player of the Year, Jacques Burger is determined to crown an outstanding season with a superb showing in New Zealand come 10 September.
In England, they say to understand what has driven Saracens to the brink of their first premiership title, you have only to meet Jacques Burger.
The hirsute Namibian flanker speaking from his farm, where he had retreated for some last minute rituals last week before the team regrouped on Thursday, ahead of today’s departure, is relishing a Fiji victory, the first ever World Cup victory in Namibian history.
“We will do our absolute best. All we want is for the fans to stand with us, and we will make them prouder. It will be tough because we are almost an amateur side. We will not win the World Cup but we have targeted Fiji and fancy our chances against Samoa. Something positive will come out of those games,” said JB, as he is affectionately known.
As recently as 2004, he was a sales rep in Windhoek, the kind of job seldom defined as "glamorous". With his oft-broken nose and mane of brown hair, he resembles a castaway from the set of the movie The Pirates of the Caribbean.
It is the gleam in Burger’s eyes, though, which tells the most vivid tale. Saracens’ greatest achievement last season, was not only the 13 match unbeaten streak but the premiership title.
He was voted Players’ Player of the season, but still the 27-year-old is as hungry as a pack of wolves.
“It was a great premiership season for me. But the biggest honour is to captain the national team. I am proud to be Namibia and I enjoy the support here hence I still want more. I want to be the first Namibian captain to win a match at the World Cup and the lads we have in camp can deliver.”
In Burger’s case the mission is even more straightforward. No one in the English Premiership tackles with such evident relish. Playing amateur rugby against big, physical farmers on the bone-hard pitches of southern Africa when he was turning out for Western Suburbs taught him the value of a well-timed tackle long ago.
Last season, in the semi-final win over Gloucester he comfortably led the way with 25 tackles the majority of them at calf height or below.
And he has to prove, at this World Cup, that it’s not only against the British that his thirst for tackles surfaces.
Many of Sarries’ opponents have endured the grim reaper treatment from JB.
His team-mates in England had no hesitation in voting him the club’s player of the year.
"How he wasn’t the Premiership’s player of the year is a travesty," the full-back Alex Goode says.
"If you ask any opposing player who they fear most you’ll get the same answer. After we beat Harlequins, their centre Jordan Turner-Hall said: ‘Every time I play you guys I spend my life looking around for that bloke with the curly hair, because I know he’ll destroy us.’ He smashes people week in, week out but off the field he’s the nicest guy in the world."
Little wonder Saracens earned a reputation as the best defensive outfit in the league. They scored 32 tries fewer than Leicester in the regular season but conceded barely one try per game.
Burger now has the challenge to prove that he can also be the enforcer-in-chief for his motherland.
Burger is among 13 survivors of the Namibia 2007 squad that lost against Ireland (32-17), hosts France (87-10), Argentina (63-3) and Georgia (30-0) and failed to collect a solitary point.
Burger and fellow flank Jacques Nieuwenhuis from French club Aurrilac are the stars of a squad, which did not impress in the mid-year IRB Nations Cup, missing many kicks at goal and lacking backline invention as they lost to hosts Romania and Georgia and narrowly defeated non-World Cup qualifiers Portugal.
But he is positive; "We have retained around 13 players from the previous World Cup and the best part for me is the talent I have seen in some South African based players such as Conraid Marais (Villagers wing), Willem Piet van Zyl (unattached) and Rohan Kitshoff (WP Flanker).”
Any young rugby player, who thinks he has already made it, should also heed Burger’s worldly advice. At 20 he was still working for a wholesale company in Windhoek from 8am to 5pm, before going training at 8pm.
"Some days you think back to where it all started and where you’re from. It’s amazing the road we take. It was so amateur."
When he was finally offered a temporary contract with Griquas in Kimberley, he seized it as a lion would a stray zebra.
"There are a lot of guys who complain about never getting a chance but they don’t work hard enough to make a success of it. I thought to myself: ‘This is my only chance, I’m going to put everything into it.’"
Fate also played its part. Burger was about to sign for the Japanese side Suntory when Sarries called, seeking a teak-tough open side to complement the promising Andy Saull.
"Money-wise Japan would have been better but I still wanted to win big tournaments. I’m so happy I made the choice I did."
For now, though, the priority is advising the largely amateur side on big match temperament.
“Besides the experience of being at the last World Cup, I bring a different set of belief in the side. Having played at a higher level and with world class coaches, it has become my duty to advise the other guys how to relax when facing big teams and big crowds,” says the man who plays in front of 80 000 fans each week in UK.”
This time, though, a crowd of 2 million-plus Namibians will follow the Welwitschias’ every move in New Zealand.
Namibia make their Group D debut on September 10 against Fiji in Rotorua and then tackle Samoa at the same venue four days later, title holders South Africa in North Shore on September 22 and Wales in New Plymouth after a three-day break.
So who will win it?
“New Zealand as hosts and currently the world’s top ranked team are favourites to win the World Cup. South Africa (defending champions) and Australia have an outside chance. But I put my money on New Zealand,” concludes the Namibian skipper, who leads the team out of Windhoek on Wednesday after tonight’s official capping at Nampower Convention Centre.