The Evening Standard

Two weeks before Brendan Venter went to the Bloomsbury Hotel to face the Rugby Football Union’s wrath for “conduct prejudicial to the interests of the game” he was faced with a very different crisis in his own front room.

Venter was sitting with a South African couple who live nearby when their three-year-old daughter Marelie, who had been playing with Esna, Venter’s daughter, in the next room, rushed in.

She was, recalls Venter, “blue in the face, her little eyes were like saucers. A jellied sweet had stuck in her throat”.

What worried the 40-year-old Saracens head coach and qualified doctor was that “normally in such situations you would have a child coughing, but she was very quiet”.

Venter had to perform the Heimlich Manoeuvre three times before Marelie coughed up the sweet.

The whole disturbing incident lasted no more than 30 seconds but for Venter it showed how quickly accidents can happen and how “each day is precious. You must live each day as if it is your last”.

We are in the bar of the Old Albanians, Saracens’ training ground in St Albans. Venter’s morning session with his players has overrun by an hour and he cannot apologise enough for keeping me waiting.

Then, as he sits down with a plate of sausages, chips and peas, he sketches out rugby’s place in his life.

“We must not let unimportant things cloud our judgement,” he says. “People tell me playing rugby is pressure. You knock a ball on – that is not pressure, there is no consequence. Pressure is a child under anaesthetic and the oxygen dropping. Life for me is all about consequences.”

This attitude explains why the South African was relaxed about going before RFU’s disciplinary officer, Judge Jeff Beckett, for the comments he made about referee David Rose after Saracens lost to Leicester last month.

Although Venter will not be drawn on the matter, sources suggest that “curious” might be a way to describe what was, in fact, two hearings.

The first was to decide whether Venter was guilty of questioning Rose’s integrity. The charge had arisen because of Venter’s post-match comments to a BBC reporter that “there was one referee in the first half. He walked through a maze or something and he came out another referee”.

Present regulations allow a coach to send a note to the official at half-time specifying three things he should look at.

That, pleaded Venter, meant the referee could be influenced and he successfully maintained that saying the referee was guided does not question his integrity.

The RFU accepted Venter’s defence but then presented a new charge of implied criticism of the referee.

This was based on the answer he gave when asked if he thought the Leicester management had interfered with Rose. His reply of “I don’t know” was judged to be an implied criticism.

Given a suspended sentence, the Saracens head coach was made to pay a £250 fine and apologise to Rose. The whole affair has not shaken Venter’s belief that the refereeing of the breakdown in rugby is a lottery.

“It is not the rules that are a problem,” he says. “It is the policing of the rules, particularly when it comes to refereeing the breakdown.

“One referee says the ball is rolling away, the next guy says please don’t come in from the side of the ruck. Another may say the players are holding on. The players are confused. It has become unbelievably complex, unbelievably open to misinterpretation.”

Venter is convinced that rugby should learn from football and keep things simple. While this may suggest he is a rugby revolutionary, he is more of a throwback to rugby’s pre-professional era.

Most of his career was spent in the amateur age, reaching his pinnacle during the 1995 World Cup Final when South Africa beat New Zealand.

That triumph helped Nelson Mandela proclaim the new rainbow nation but it was also the last major match before rugby union became professional.

While the former centre has been part of the professional era as player and coach, he still claims he is “not a rugby professional. I am a doctor”.

His time at Saracens is a sojourn from his GP practice in his native South Africa. The practice is being managed by his partner and, for Venter, coaching players cannot make up for missing the daily contact with patients.

“That is the one sacrifice – to come away and be a rugby coach. At the surgery you feel great. You have worked to make a difference.”

At Saracens he has tried to keep the amateur tradition going and encourage players to qualify and get higher education. “Yes,” he agrees. “We are old fashioned.” But this gives Venter a unique perspective on the game.

Professionalism, he says, has improved the sport. “Before 1995 the game was badly organised. We might not have had as many tries but now there are a lot more tackles and the ball is in play for 40 minutes. Before 1995 it was only 30 minutes.”

However, this has also made rugby more of a kicking game because, believes Venter, “defences became better”. But he has no problems with that, despite the fact that Sarries fans controversially jeered their own players at the end of the 19-16 win against Gloucester in September because they were unhappy with that style of play.

Ireland, for instance, proved that a kicking game can bring great success when they won last year’s Six Nations by making the fewest passes.

Similarly, Venter’s beloved Springboks beat the All Blacks in the Tri-Nations despite the fact the entire South African team made fewer passes than the New Zealand scrum-half.

“Just 43 passes,” reveals Venter. “But South Africa won.”

For Venter this proves that the conservative kicking approach is the winning way. “This is true of all sports,” he argues. “Very seldom do teams with magical attacks win.”

Venter’s philosophy is similar to Martin Johnson’s and convinces him that the England team manager is “on the right track”.

It helps that Johnson has Venter’s captain, Steve Borthwick, as the country’s leader. He says: “England have the kind of team that can hurt you. They have a very good defence.”

Though many experts rate England as only the fourth best team in Europe, Venter is confident they can win the Six Nations, in which they kick off against Wales at Twickenham on Saturday.

But what about Johnson’s dreadful run of autumn results when they only beat Argentina and lost to Australia and New Zealand?

For Venter it is all explained by injuries. “When you don’t have the best players week in, week out, it makes for difficult matches,” he says.

Then Venter trots out the various English names that missed the campaign, all part of his central belief that you make decisions based only on the facts available at the time.

“When I take a decision, it is an informed decision. We call it evidence-based rugby,” he says. This is similar to “evidence-based medicine” which he was taught and evidence-based religion which has convinced this Seventh Day Adventist that God exists.

“I don’t actually think there is a God. I know there is a God. I am a believer because there is scientific evidence of God’s existence.”

Back in the 1990s when he was a medical student at Bloemfontein University he looked into the whole concept of life. “I wanted to know – is there really a God? I did not go into this blindly. The odds are overwhelmingly in favour of a God having created us.”

Recently, the Haiti tragedy has made Venter wrestle with his beliefs because there has been so much suffering.

He says: “I have battled with that concept. In my practice, I so often had children getting cancer, mothers getting cancer and fathers dying.

“God made a world of choice and freedom and certain things happen to us. I don’t have an answer why. We all have the same vision of life, respecting other people and speaking kindly.”

But can this be the same Venter who, as a player, so incensed Matt Dawson that, in his 2004 autobiography, the former England scrum-half branded Venter as “an out-and-out thug”.

Dawson wrote that Venter was “one of the most hypocritical, cynical and dirty players I have ever played against”.

This followed the 2002 Powergen Cup Final when Venter, playing for London Irish, felled Dawson with a stiff arm tackle as the Exiles went on to score a 38-7 win over Northampton.

“When I saw it,” says Venter, “I realised I got it wrong. I was lucky not to be sent off. We do get things wrong in the heat of the moment. It is not what we do wrong but how we can fix it?”

The following season Venter tried to fix it by offering an apology but Dawson, recalls Venters, “told me to ‘eff off.

“Matt still struggles with what happened in the final. We need to move on. Religion helps me do that. We all do wrong. Because we are religious does not mean we are perfect.”

Venter is not seeking perfection from his Saracens players and, while he has turned them from losers to winners, he says: “The biggest thing is changing people, not winning.”

For Sarries, the main problem is that he can give no guarantee how long he will remain at the club. That will depend on his God. “I believe God guides us when to leave.”


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