As Saracens gear up to face Clermont in the European Champions Cup semi-final, they can look back on Jacques Burger's phenomenal shift against the same opponents a year ago.
If Saracens are the comic villains of European rugby – and one prominent Irish blog has rather wittily christened them Globo Gym after the muscly-but-dumb badguys in Ben Stiller’s boisterous movie Dodgeball – then Jacques Burger is their evil genius.
The gnarled Namibian openside embodies the collective, abrasive industry that Mark McCall’s men pride themselves upon. And two traits underpin his approach.
Firstly, Burger has a higher work-rate than a spaniel full of blue Smarties. Secondly, his regard for personal wellbeing sits somewhere between miniscule and zero. As with many of the world’s effective forwards, there is also a streak of spite.
A late lunge and swinging arm at Racing Metro’s Maxime Machenaud in the European Champions Cup quarter-final was both reckless and ugly. Even so, a very lenient (some may say laughable) one-week ban means Burger will face Clermont on Saturday in Saint-Etienne.
For Saracens, that is an extremely happy omen. The flanker put in a tour-de-force performance as the Top 14 giants left Twickenham with a 46-6 hiding at the corresponding stagelast season.
A similar scoreline is highly unlikely, but you can be sure of the same bloody-minded effort from Burger. Here is a tackle-by-tackle run-down of his defensive display 12 months ago.
05:10 – Tackle one. Following a territorial exchanges between the sides, Clermont have a lineout inside their own 22 with the game still scoreless:
This is an excellent example of set-piece defence. Stationed at scrum-half with number nine Neil de Kock in the five-metre channel, Burger is freed up to speed towards the first receiver.
His sole aim is to stop Damien Chouly crossing the gain-line…
…and, with a strong collision, he does so:
10:06 – Tackle two. Chris Ashton has just dotted down to finish off a clinical team score for Saracens. At 7-0 up, they need a sturdy exit play:
The kick-chase has become a exact science and Saracens are experts. Here, de Kock’s organisation is paramount. Before striking the ball, he beckons his forwards around the blindside of the ruck:
As he kicks, Burger has come around, remaining onside before setting off:
He works hard to stay connected with Ashton as Lee Byrne comes forward to gather:
The Welsh full-back steps inside but is felled and, through Kelly Brown, Saracens can compete at the ensuing breakdown:
12:22 – Tackle three. A Morgan Parra penalty reduces Clermont’s deficit before Alex Goode’s switch restart is fielded by the France scrum-half. He runs into trouble before feeding Sitiveni Sivivatu. Burger rushes up to shackle the dangerous All Black.
It proves an important intervention. From the next phase, Byrne was charged down and Brock James batted the ball back over the dead-ball line, earning a yellow card and handing Saracens a penalty try for a 14-3 advantage.
15:14 – Tackle four. Clermont keep it tight and Benjamin Kayser shunts around the fringes. Burger steps in to trip the hooker.
15:33 – Tackle five. Back to his feet rapidly, Burger repeats the trick on big Jamie Cudmore.
15: 43 – Tackle six. Clermont have trundled 15 metres without making a pass, but Burger catches Nathan Hines cold to derail their clunky phase-play:
His stance at body-guard in the defensive structure is perfect, holding around five metres of width and facing the shoulders slightly inwards while remaining well behind the back foot of the ruck:
Hines is rather slow in picking the ball out of the breakdown, and Burger opportunistically rushes around:
He propels Hines backwards and the next ruck is disrupted:
18:13 – Tackle seven. Another de Kock box, another relentless chase from Burger. This time Napolioni Nalaga is the catcher. He is tripped by a human lasso:
This collision caused Twickenham to gasp. It is worth another look:
20:25 – Tackle eight. A lineout maul crumbles, so Cudmore batters at the fringe again. He is met by Steve Borthwick and Burger.
23:21 – Tackle nine. Deep in the Saracens 22, Clermont persist with punchy, round the corner carries. Lee trucks up. Burger envelops him.
24:53 – Tackle 10. Goode hoists one high. Byrne claims, but Burger is right on the scene. Another kick-chase executed perfectly.
25:14 – Tackle 11. The numbers are racking up now as Saracens soak up Clermont. Julien Bonnaire links with Wesley Fofana. He cannot escape through the middle, though.
27:02 – Tackle 12. Now Cudmore steams off Chouly’s shoulder. Burger jams in to stop the big Canadian.
27:20 – Tackle 13. Saracens put a great deal of pressure on the breakdown and Davit Zirakashvili must make a hurried foray close to the ruck.
Burger tackles, releases and then attempts to jackal, but Nigel Owens pings him for competing off his feet:
The tell-tale sign is Burger’s left knee, which is resting on the tackled player. Therefore, he is not supporting his own bodyweight:
This penalty provided Clermont’s final points of the afternoon.
28:42 – Tackle 14. How to make amends for a mistake – chase the ensuing restart and nail Chouly and Sivivatu to bust the ball loose:
32:41 – Tackle 15. A third try has come through Owen Farrell for a 21-6 lead. Do not think Saracens are going to let up. Fofana is chopped down by Burger on his own 22…
33:24 – Tackle 16. Now Sivivatu finds no way to break out:
37:52 – Tackle 17. Saracens force a penalty of their own for 24-6 before Kayser is the latest to cart around the fringes.
This time, watch Burger’s discipline. His effort to roll away towards the bottom of the screen is very conspicuous:
39:25 – Tackle 18. Thomas Domingo barrels up and is hauled to the ground, Mouritz Botha’s initial hit helping.
39:58. Not strictly a tackle, but Burger’s line-speed and slightly late challenge cause Fofana to cough up possession.
40:08 – Tackle 19. Who else but Burger to get things rolling in the second half? Parra gets floored from the restart:
44:26 – Tackle 20. Weathering an early onslaught from Saracens, Clermont clear their lines. From a lineout over halfway, Hines passes to Domingo and Burger dives in.
45:10 – Tackle 21. Brits and Burger join forces to fell Chouly.
45:47 – Tackle 22. Fofana looks to evade Ashton but Burger finishes the job.
46:05 – Tackle 23. Clermont spread the ball to Nalaga, hugging the left touchline. Burger does just enough at full stretch:
51:25 – Tackle 24. Chouly powers up once more. Once more, his nemesis guards the gain-line.
55:12 – Tackle 25. A Marcelo Bosch penalty has made the score 27-6 to Saracens and again Burger’s position – standing at scrum-half – from a lineout pays dividends.
Nalaga is sent forward from the set-piece and met in midfield:
59:42 – Tackles 26 and 27. A double-whammy. Burger and Billy Vunipola stop Hines on a hard line.
Burger then releases and looks to compete before giving up on realising replacement Gerhard Vosloo has picked up. The rangy back-rower is taken down as well:
60:09 – Tackle 28. Chouly straightens a lateral attack. It’s inevitable who encounters him.
63:20 – Tackle 29. This one comes after Clermont have won a turnover and Hines attempts to steal around the fringes. You have to be eagle-eyed to spot it:
Here, Burger actually starts off as the blindside guard:
When Bonnaire blocks Vunipola, Burger needs to track back to intervene. To have the presence of mind and desire to accomplish that, one hour into a manic match, is pretty special.
63:50 – Tackle 30. Fittingly, Burger’s last tackle of a mammoth shift before being taken off on 69 minutes led to a misplaced pass and Saracens nicking the ball:
The outcome defined how central his incredible work ethic and bravery was to the result.
On Saturday, the Clermont juggernaut will gather pace again. Burger will be on another derailing mission.