More than a rugby coach: Venter the visionary

MAYBE it’s because Brendan Venter spent the summer back home in South Africa working as a doctor in his own practice, an environment in every sense half a world away from top-level English sport.

Or perhaps it’s down to his singularly utopian philosophy for running Saracens, where he insists rugby is “a side issue” and the focus is on making his squad better people, rather than just better players.

But Venter is convincing when he says he harbours no festering regrets or bitterness from last season, despite finishing the campaign with a 10-week ban he still views as unjustified and coming within three minutes of rewriting the club’s history books.

That suspension was imposed after an altercation with Leicester fans during a match at Welford Road and caused him to miss his side’s first ever appearance in a Premiership final, where they were dramatically beaten by none other than the Tigers.

Yet although he resents the stain on his name caused by suggestions, later dismissed, he swore at and pushed supporters during the same incident, and remains adamant he did not act improperly in any way, the straight-talking 40-year-old says he has not brooded on the controversy.

“I don’t have a big victim mentality. I’m more like, whatever, this is what happened, take it or leave it,” he explains. “Am I guilty? No, 100 per cent not. I look at facts. I think, ‘What did I say? What actually came out of my mouth?’ Not, ‘What was the perception?’. Did I swear at anybody? Did I push anybody? No. Did I mock them, bow to them, blow kisses at them? Absolutely. But in my book there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s as simple as that. I don’t feel like a victim. If they go on with their stuff, whatever.”

He adds: “When it comes to Leicester, would I stand up again if I can’t see? Absolutely. Don’t put me there next time please, because I can’t see from that vantage point.”

GALAXIES AWAY

Venter does seem uniquely able to rile opponents, be they on the pitch or in the sport’s corridors of power. Even his eating of a biscuit during one disciplinary hearing provoked a diplomatic row.

It is a quality that appears utterly at odds with the highly intelligent, impeccably mannered, Christian man who has spoken with this reporter on numerous occasions and greets City A.M. at the club’s St Albans training ground. It becomes even harder to reconcile, however, when Venter begins to expound on his vision for the club, which is experimental in its vast scope and places less emphasis on success than its players’ wellbeing.

All are encouraged to take up further education, and three quarters have; they and their families are encouraged to socialise together; a dedicated team psychologist puts them on personal development programmes; and voluntary sessions are held on questions of spirituality and the meaning of life. It is galaxies away from the old-school mentality still pervasive in British sport but is an approach that prompts new signings to universally proclaim “something special” is happening at the club.

“The main thing is we treat them like people here, like human beings. Secondly, they are rugby players. It sounds weird, but rugby is a little bit of a side issue at Saracens,” he says.

“It’s the same with me. I’m a lot more than a rugby coach. I’m a good husband to my wife, a father to my children, I’ve got other business interests, and that’s how I want to be. I’ve got a spiritual side to my life.

“When I came here it was to make a good impact on people; not make them better rugby players, but influence their lives in a good way. The idea was to make a different difference. Our difference is not necessarily to make Saracens a winning club; that would be a consequence of other things we do. Our thing is zooming in on people and helping people.”

It all sounds quasi-religious. He breaks into a booming laugh.

“It’s a community. I’ve never been involved in a rugby club where people actually care for each other. They try hard on the field. I think that’s a consequence of an environment that cares – not just makes as if it cares, but really cares.”

Unorthodox it may be, but successful it undoubtedly is. Venter defied pre-season expectations by leading Saracens to within a whisker of their first top-flight title in May, denied only by a 77th-minute Dan Hipkiss try. Not that he has dwelt on it.

“The fact we didn’t win the Premiership is irrelevant; it was a brilliant season. Fifteen minutes after the final we were fine; I was fine. You try and win it and if you don’t, you don’t. And that’s it.” He exhales deeply. “You know, three minutes away… Whether you win it or not, it is the way you perform, and I was just proud of the way they performed. But I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think we could win the Premiership.”

Venter and his disciples are on a mission then, and for once modest Saracens won’t need a miracle to claim silverware.


Read Brendan Venter’s column every Friday in City A.M. starting next week. For Saracens tickets call 01727 792800