Pulling no punches

RYAN VREDE chats to Saracens boss Brendan Venter about clashing with authority, how rugby is dying as a spectacle and why being Springbok coach isn’t worth it.

Last season was bittersweet for you – making the Premiership final but missing the game [which Saracens lost] through a touchline suspension for an incident at Leicester where you were found guilty of ‘provoking the crowd’. What are your thoughts when you reflect now? Would you have done anything differently relating to that incident?
I couldn’t have done anything differently. I was seated in an area where I couldn’t see the bottom left-hand 22m area, and was right in the centre of the Leicester fans. It was ludicrous to expect me to effectively instruct my team in those circumstances. I understand and appreciate passionate support, but some Leicester fans were swearing at me and the abuse got worse when I constantly had to stand up to see the entire field. So I just stayed standing. It was an act of defiance, I wasn’t going to take that sort of abuse, but it was also necessitated by poor planning from Leicester. If they ever put me there again, I’ll stand again. Some of the things I was accused of saying to them was pure fabrication, though, but the disciplinary panel seemed pretty convinced given the length of the ban [10 weeks].

You were also accused of pushing a female Leicester supporter as you exited the area. People made a moral judgement on that, even before they heard the counter-argument. The charge was later dismissed, but, as a man who prides himself on his moral standing, what effect did that have?
It was devastating. It was a complete lie. The judge threw that charge out. It was akin to bumping into somebody at a busy mall and then getting a lawyer’s letter a couple of days later being accused of physical abuse. I couldn’t even remember the incident; the lady’s husband who was right behind her had no recollection of it, and, most importantly, the lady in question couldn’t understand the fuss. It was clearly a bid to tarnish my reputation. Thankfully the judge saw it for what it was.

He did, but you also angered him by eating a biscuit while he was delivering the verdict, which he later said had a telling influence on the length of your suspension.
That was a massive misunderstanding. I was eating the biscuit at recess and was suddenly called in to hear the verdict. I’ve since had coffee with the judge and we’ve shared our views on the case. He accepted that he may have overreacted on the biscuit issue and apologised for even hearing the charge brought against me for pushing that woman.

The latest in what is now becoming an impressive collection of misconduct charges saw you fined nearly R100 000 for comments relating to referee Christophe Berdos’s performance in a European Cup game in October. You criticised his management of the breakdown, saying: ‘They should have had three more yellow cards and we should have had 16 other penalties. Last year we won 10 games in a row by kicking everything. Maybe we should start kicking everything again. Rugby’s going to die if it continues to be refereed like that.’
When I offer an opinion, it’s backed by facts. Referees are struggling to apply the breakdown interpretations uniformly, but we’re not allowed to highlight those shortcomings. It’s the rule, but that rule is wrong and outdated. How does a party who contributes one-third to a game of rugby escape criticism if he adversely affects the contest? I’ll always be truthful in my assessment of a result. In late October we lost unexpectedly against Exeter and I admitted we were poor. If you reflect on all my post-match assessments you’ll find that truth and facts always guide my view.

Can you elaborate on your concerns around the breakdown and its effect on the future of the game?
I think the new IRB regulations in their entirety are spot on and well thought out, not just the ones relating to the new breakdown law interpretations. But specifically on the breakdown, it’s obviously critical to the shape of the game. The IRB wants a spectacle and referees are central to the implementation of that vision. There needs to be greater consistency in how that facet of play is managed, otherwise we’ll be back in the dark age of rugby where teams just kicked everything.

There has been a spike in the number of tries scored in the Super 14 and Tri-Nations, and the ball-in-play time has increased in 2010, yet there is not as discernible an improvement in those areas in the Six Nations and European club competition. Why is this?
I’ve seen this question answered many times and it always relates to the conditions we play in, but that’s not the entire issue. Part of the problem is that the southern hemisphere teams and referees have been playing under the new interpretations for longer. I don’t, however, think parts of Europe have embraced the breakdown interpretations as well as the IRB may have hoped. For example, by the end of October there had been 20 drop goals in the Premiership. In France there were 154. You kick drop goals when the ruck recycle is slow and that tells me everything I need to know about the application of the breakdown interpretations in those countries.

Let’s talk about your standing at Saracens. You seem to elicit a massive amount of appreciation and commitment from your players. Why do you think that is?
You earn your respect as a coach first, and then you solidify those relationships by showing that there is a truly caring man behind that character. I am intensely involved in the players’ lives outside of rugby. When their kids are sick they bring them to see me [Venter is a medical doctor]. When they are having relationship issues, we discuss those and I offer what advice I can. You can’t divorce the man and the player. They are a package and need to be approached as such. At Saracens we’ve got the philosophy that there’s more to life than rugby. That’s why we had no hesitation in releasing Wikus van Heerden from his contract when he said his wife was homesick. Players need to be happy. That, I think, has been central to our success.

Justin Marshall referred to you as the José Mourinho of rugby, saying: ‘I think Mourinho is a good comparison because he too is very strong-minded, outspoken, determined to succeed and so passionate about the game. But, most importantly, like Mourinho, Brendan can back it up with results and performances.’ What do you make of that comparison?
It’s flattering but flawed. Mourinho has built his reputation on winning major titles. I’m not at that level yet.

Saracens have a decidedly South African core, most of whom are excelling. Why is it that players like Schalk Brits, Brad Barritt and Ernst Joubert, who are all regarded as competent but not superstars in South Africa, do so well in Europe? Is it an indictment on the standard of the competitions?
No, not at all. South Africans don’t realise what immense talent they have. The guys you mention are all excellent, but unfortunately they are playing in an era when there are some exceptional players ahead of them in the Springbok ranks. Brits was competing for a place against John Smit, a great hooker and captain. Barritt was up against Jean de Villiers, who is the best inside centre on the planet at present, and Joubert was trying to push past Pierre Spies, again among the finest No 8s in world rugby. Another reason for their prominence in Europe is that, in South Africa, talent is disposable because of the wealth of that resource. In Europe that’s not the case and we have to invest in what we have and work hard on improving players, which then reflects in their performance. Here there’s no Deon Stegmann or Francois Louw to replace Heinrich Brüssow, or Duane Vermeulen pushing to oust Spies. My time in Europe has given me a greater appreciation for what we have back home.

Derick Hougaard is one of your players who has shown massive improvement in his all-round play. He looks a more refined player.
Absolutely. He runs the ball beautifully now and is purposeful and effective in taking it to the gain line. He’s only 27 and I think that South Africans will see a vastly improved and more potent player if and when he returns to play there.

What are your impressions of the Springboks less than a year out from the World Cup?
I think their struggles were rooted in the absence of key players, the most notable being Fourie du Preez, Heinrich Brüssow, Frans Steyn and Bakkies Botha. Any side would struggle without that quartet. Certainly there was some tactical naivety and I think some of the coach’s comments in the media heaped pressure on his players in a negative way. If they address those issues I can see them making a strong title defence.

Springbok coach Peter de Villiers, like you, is a man who speaks his mind. Yet you note that some of his comments adversely affected his team. Why is this?
It is one thing to have an opinion and another to have an informed opinion. I try and reserve my opinions to matters relating to rugby because that’s my area of expertise and those opinions are carefully formed and guided by research, trends and so on. I don’t think that has always been the case with Peter.

The Springbok job is likely to become available after the 2011 World Cup. Would you find that challenge appealing?
No, not at all. When I was younger I did. It was an ego thing. But I’ve gotten over my ego and myself. I think Allister Coetzee is the right man for the job. He’s been in the Springbok set-up and proven his ability in Super Rugby. Other strong candidates would be Rassie Erasmus and Heyneke Meyer. I’m having fun at Saracens and believe in what we’re trying to achieve. The Springbok job is not for me – the incessant pressure, often unrealistic expectations – no, good luck to whoever gets it. It’s too engulfing of your whole life. Here [at Saracens], you have the best part of coaching: brilliant friends and a brilliant job. The Springboks … it’s too destructive. The moment the stakes become that high, I don’t think it’s worth it.

– This article first appeared in the December issue of SA Rugby magazine.