In this revived feature with SA Rugby magazine, Namibian rugby legend and former Saracens flanker Jacques Burger dwells on family life, career and life after rugby.
Jacques Burger is one of the most celebrated Namibian rugby players of all time, having won 37 Test caps and playing in the 2007, 2011 and 2015 World Cups. However, his story is very much that of the underdog. For much of his career, Burger had to fight to prove himself.
Burger’s career began in his home country, under inspirational head coach Danie Vermeulen, who gave Burger his shot to prove himself on the Test scene in 2004.
“I was depressed and a little overweight.” Burger says. “I remember sitting at home one evening for dinner and I got the call from Vermeulen to come train with the Test side. The belief he showed helped turn me around. It was also inspirational to see someone in a wheelchair constantly on the sidelines.” Vermeulen was paralysed in a car accident in 2000.
After short stints with Griquas and French side Aurillac, Burger looked to step up to a Super Rugby level with the Bulls in 2008 but found breaking into their side a difficult task.
It was at Saracens where Burger made a name for himself. After struggling for game time at the Bulls, Burger was brought to England by then Saracens coach Brendan Venter.
“That came at the perfect time. My contract was up at the Bulls and we were negotiating, but they weren’t too interested and I wasn’t either. I got an offer from Suntory Goliath, who were coached by Eddie Jones.
“I had realised that I was never going to play Super Rugby, after being in and out at the Bulls. I decided to make the money move and go to Japan. Then Brendan called me and convinced me to join. The money wasn’t as good as Suntory’s but that was where my desire to be the best came through. While you want to make money, you still want to win a few trophies.”
After signing for the London club in 2010, Burger took to the Saracens culture and was named the team’s Player of the Year after helping them win the English Premiership in 2011.
“The good thing was that I was relatively unknown when I got there. I was starting on a clean slate and could go in there and give it a good crack. I felt at home straight away. I believed in everything the club did. There was such a great culture between the players and their families. I knew this was the place where I belonged. I was inspired by what they were building towards.”
After struggling with injuries towards the back end of his career, Burger decided to hang up his boots in 2015. He credits Venter and Vermeulen as the two biggest influences on his career.
“That connection with Brendan is interesting. When I was at the Griquas, they raised the African Leopards team, which was combined of players from across Africa, and they played against the British Army. The coach was Brendan Venter, and the manager, Edward Griffiths, became the chief executive at Saracens when I joined.
‘Brendan is an incredible human being,’ Burger says. ‘He is one of those rugby geniuses and knows how to bring guys together. I have a lot of trust in him.’
Life after rugby
After retiring in 2015, Burger, who was unable to complete his studies during his career, returned to Namibia to go into farming. “I was left wondering what I wanted to do. I didn’t have a degree so I got a plot of land in the south of Namibia, where my wife’s family are from.”
Burger also works as a regional manager for King Price Insurance but adds that he has not completely left rugby behind. “I still watch rugby and sometimes miss being out there with the guys. Sometime in the future, I would like to start thinking about coaching.”
Burger and wife Lehanie have two
children, Mila and Malan. He says his children have caught the sporting bug. “Mila is very competitive. She wants to win with everything she tries. I can see Malan also going to rugby because of who his dad is, but I don’t want to push him. He must decide what he wants to do.”