Jacques Burger pushes through pain barrier

2nd January 2013

Jacques Burger, one of modern rugby’s greatest warriors, has been fighting to overcome a gruesome knee injury after enduring an operation in South Africa that was considered too risky by his UK surgeon. At last he sees light at the end of a very dark tunnel.

This has been a struggle which he admits has driven him to the very brink of depression but, in 2013, the battle must continue, with a comeback scheduled for March. If he prevails, and returns to the Saracens back row, Burger says it will be the “sweetest” moment of his career.

Burger has a proud history of overcoming adversity. Now 29, he emerged from the rugby backwater of Namibia and was voted one of the top five players of the 2011 World Cup. He took his place among the hard men in the Aviva Premiership when Brendan Venter brought him to England in 2009 and he was Saracens’ Player of the Year in 2011.

Earlier this year Burger underwent the operation he had been advised to avoid. Surgeons realigned the tibia (shin bone) where it enters the socket of his knee as, rather like the leaning Tower of Pisa, Burger’s lower right leg had moved horribly out of kilter.

To straighten it and redistribute the pressure through the joint, surgeons sawed out a V-shaped wedge of bone from his tibia. Burger’s specialist in Britain advised against taking the risk – “understandably so” according to the rugged Namibian flanker – but, undeterred, he travelled to South Africa, where another specialist was willing to try.

In 2011 running in training was agony and only the adrenalin of a match day got him through. He underwent scans just before the World Cup but the problem went undiagnosed.

The chronic injury was a direct result of the accumulated stress on a malfunctioning joint, but something worsened dramatically during Saracens’ 29-15 win at Northampton in February that year.

Burger rested completely for six weeks before returning but from that moment onwards his career became an exercise in pain management.

Although virtually playing on one leg, he produced four extraordinary individual performances in adversity for Namibia which prompted many critics to select him for their best XV of the 2011 World Cup.

Back at Saracens he underwent a second clean-up operation but after the Heineken Cup game against Ospreys early in January finally accepted something was very wrong. He knows it may take two years or more to complete his comeback.

“Like most rugby players I’m pretty stupid,” jokes Burger. “I will go through almost anything just to get the satisfaction of playing.

“Looking back I probably shouldn’t have played in the World Cup but it was always going to be huge and how often do you get the opportunity to captain your country at an event like that?

“Despite all the pain and grief since I am glad I went to New Zealand with Namibia. I got the job done for 80 minutes in every game, just.

In those big games you can live with the pain because after about 10 minutes everything else was hurting so it was just part of the picture. But on a day-to-day basis there was no way I could continue.

“I still get days when I curse – but then you go to work in the gym and feel better about life and on other days it starts to feel good again. When you can’t play it feels like your hobby or favourite toy has been taken away. I love this game and I will play again.”

Burger is targeting March for a possible comeback but only if he is 100 per cent fit and recovered.

To return too soon would be disastrous. Burger is probably only going to get the one chance. With abundant scar tissue and damaged nerves healing in their own time, and a knee learning how to work again, nature cannot be rushed. Burger is willing to take another 12 months if necessary and Saracens are backing their man.

“Mentally it has been the toughest year of my life and I think I have been borderline depressed some of the time,” he admits. “A lot of sportsmen go through the same thing. There are times when you seriously doubt yourself and become frustrated and just plain fed up.

“We have a psychologist at the club but I decided not go down that route. I have opted to sort it out my own way. Luckily Saracens are incredibly supportive as my family.

“Rehab is a pretty full-time job, certainly more time consuming than training and playing. It’s busy but I do try to switch off. We had a baby 10 months ago . That’s a major distraction and I have also tried to keep busy organising my farm back home in Stampriet in Namibia.

“At first I had to keep myself away from the club on match day, just being there was too painful and hard. It reminds you every single second of the day what you are missing and that you are gong to be out for a very long time.

“I miss it so much. Waking up on match day full of nerves and energy and that tight feeling in your stomach. Of course I want the boys to keep winning all the time but it dents your confidence a little bit when they keep winning without you.

"No matter how long it takes I will get back playing and when I do it will be the sweetest victory of my life.”