Saracens’ Jacques Burger is clearly no stranger to the combative nature of rugby union. His battle-scarred face serves as a constant reminder of a brutal approach to the game that makes the no-nonsense Namibian not only a crowd favourite but also a coach’s dream.
‘Never be ashamed of a scar’, reads an unattributed quote endorsed by Burger on his Twitter account, ‘it simply means you were stronger that what tried to hurt you’. The flanker is true to his word with a series of pictures on that same social media account showcasing numerous stitches, scrapes, black eyes, blisters, the knee surgery and subsequent treatment that rescued his career.
That latter injury sidelined Burger for 18 months and his brush with premature retirement injected renewed vigour into his game. Saracens clearly never doubted for one moment he would return to their ranks, having handed him a new contract mid-recovery, and their faith has been rewarded this season with a string of high-octane performances that prompted a nomination for the Premiership Rugby Player of the Season award last week.
Despite its name, that award also takes into account performances both on the international stage and in Europe, and the panel will no doubt have noted Burger’s latest outstanding showing in his side’s stunning Heineken Cup semi-final victory over Clermont Auvergne this weekend.
It was one of the best team performances in a competition that has a history of inspiring greatness has ever witnessed. The Premiership side not only accounted for their highly-rated Top 14 rivals but in winning 46-6 they recorded the highest ever points total and biggest winning margin ever seen in a semi-final.
The six tries may have lit up the scoreboard but it was their defence that defined and won this contest. Burger led the way with a bone-crunching 27 tackles in 69 minutes and also weighed in with nine carries for a pressure-piling 59m. You cannot coach that level of commitment, you can only encourage it and trust in the player’s desire which in Burger’s case is unrivalled. The end result is a performance that is destined to become a benchmark and the blueprint for barnstorming back-row play.
Of course a team cannot dominate so emphatically unless that work ethic is shared across the board – as it was at Twickenham. The ‘Wolfpack’ mentality, that demands they do not defend as individuals but together as a team, is often mocked but it is Sarries who are laughing now as they contemplate their first ever Heineken Cup final.
Sarries’ defence coach Paul Gustard has reason to be proud following this masterclass. One ‘gang tackle’ in particular, by fly-half Owen Farrell and centre Brad Barritt that shackled the usually fleet-footed Clermont wing Sitiveni Sivivatu, who was earmarked as a major threat before the game and subsequently limited to a handful of metres with ball in hand, a perfect example of the desire within the squad to work for each other.
But that desire will only carry a team so far, which is where the strength and conditioning coaches earn their money and their side a shot at Europe’s biggest prize. The hard work in pre-season and all the way through the campaign laid the foundation for their lung-busting effort against Clermont.
An awe-inspiring line speed continued to slam the door in their rivals’ faces long after the game was won while scraps were scavenged at the tackle and breakdown from the first whistle to the last, with hooker Schalk Brits and second row Steve Borthwick other notable performers on the field.
Off the field, this was a triumph for all the coaches having seen their side, by their own admission, bullied by Clermont in their quarter-final clash two years ago. That defeat triggered changes to Saracens’ approach – both physically and tactically – but at some point the responsibility falls upon the players and it helps when they are as committed as this current crop.
Sarries’ superior physicality and enviable industry set them apart this time around and those qualities are set to cast a shadow over another record-breaking element of this game. Winger Chris Ashton crossed for two tries to take his tally in this season’s Heineken Cup to 11 tries and eclipse the all-time record set by Brive’s Sebastien Carrat back in 1996-97. Like Burger, he has emerged triumphantly from doubts about his career although in his case they centred on his form rather than fitness.
Ashton, who also boasted a work rate to match his team-mates, will happily accept second billing as he quietly goes about restoring his credibility having slipped down the England pecking order. His form cannot be ignored for much longer with one last-ditch tackle late in the game on the man-mountain that is Vincent Debaty also helping to ease concerns about his defence.
A return to the international ranks surely beckons for the summer tour to New Zealand where his revival will come under even more intense scrutiny. But in this kind of form he has reason to look forward to any future challenge in the same way Burger relishes just lacing up his boots.
What do you think of Burger’s and Saracens performance, will they go on to win the Heineken Cup? How do you encourage a ‘Wolfpack’ team mentality in defence?