References to "second-season syndrome" are flying across the Premiership landscape, whether it is Northampton or Leeds Tykes hoping to repeat their good form, or individuals such as Leicester's moon-faced scrum-half Ben Youngs needing to back up a breakthrough. Some have not got as far as having anything to prove: notably Exeter Chiefs, newly promoted from the Championship after a decade on the fringes. At Saracens they like to do things differently. Their director of rugby Brendan Venter is facing a second "second-season syndrome".
Venter was coach at the previously so-so London Irish in 2002 when they thrashed Northampton at Twickenham to win the Powergen Cup, with a sprinkling of South Africans and a ferocious focus on attitude above results. The following season, Irish had injuries, they flirted with relegation and Venter called it a day, returning to his GP practice near Cape Town, and coaching with the Stormers. He returned to England in early 2009 and, with South African investment on and off the field, led the previously so-so Saracens to the Premiership final.
"The biggest problem with my second year at Irish was we didn't have depth in crucial positions," Venter recalls as he contemplates Saturday's season-opener against his old club at Twickenham. "So we have recruited strongly in the spine of the team." There's Richard Wigglesworth at scrum-half, Deon Carstens at prop (with Matt Stevens to follow in mid-season), Kelly Brown at No 8 to give some respite for Mr Consistency, Ernst Joubert, and Nils Mordt at centre. The fly-half spot will be shared between Alex Goode, the exciting young England Saxon, and Derick Hougaard, an ex-Springbok. "We've got players at this club who make us look like good coaches," says Venter. "The more of them you have, the better coach you are."
There's a little humour there, but the atmosphere around SArries (a word coined by the chief executive Ed Griffiths) is mostly serious, and that is the point. At times last season, when he landed RFU suspensions for comments about a referee and arguing with Leicester supporters during a match at Welford Road, it seemed Venter and his club were thumbing their nose at the entire English game. Venter says the game is only the product of the people within it – "What is Saracens? It's nothing, it's dead without its people" – so if some English attitudes are too cosy, maybe that is the way the English like it. Whatever the case, the good doctor Venter will continue to jab his verbal hypodermics into the underbelly of lazy attitudes and woolly thinking.
"This is a professional game," he says. "Let's stay 100 per cent objective and not make small talk or banter. They are refs and we are players. I could say to a ref 'hi, how's your mother?' but I don't care how his mother is. I don't know him and I don't know her. I did suggest I could just say 'no comment' every time I'm asked a question. But Ed Griffiths pointed out it is in my contract that I have to give interviews. So I'll just have to keep on giving honest answers."
Honesty rules Venter's regime. It comes from his Christian beliefs and a dissatisfaction at how some coaches handled him during a playing career which included winning the 1995 World Cup with South Africa. Venter has told his players who will play where in the first 10 games of the season (barring injury), up to and including the start of the Heineken Cup, which is another parallel with his stint at London Irish. They defeated 2003 champions-to-be Toulouse in the pool but discovered how a twin campaign, Premiership and Europe, can stretch resources. Sarries have been drawn with Leinster, Clermont and Racing Métro in a classic group of death.
Coincidentally, that victory over Toulouse emphasised a lesson about refereeing which has festered with Venter for more than a decade. "We beat them because they couldn't get any quick ball and that was because every tackle I made I fell on the wrong side, and I wrapped the guy up and held him and the referee allowed it. And I said to my guys 'it's illegal but let's just do this', and we won. What we're saying at Saracens now is we can't do that, it's too unprofessional."
He is delighted at the 10 points of protocol which English referees have distributed to the clubs, following on from last February's "watershed" meeting between Tony Hanks, the Wasps coach, Premiership Rugby's Phil Winstanley, the RFU's referee manager Ed Morrison and rugby director Rob Andrew. It was the culmination of countless hours of debate over what happens in the split second after a tackle, it gave the attacking side more leeway to retain possession, and tries began to flow again.
"The way the referees have gone about it is right," says Venter. "They're going to police us. If we're offside at the breakdown they're going to ping us. If we're not behind the last player's feet we're going to be penalised. And we [at Saracens] are saying 'penalise us, penalise everybody'. If an alcoholic comes in to my practice and denies he has a problem, I cannot help him. The moment he says 'I've got a problem' his recovery starts. It's the same in rugby. The ability to say 'what was my part of the mistake and what was your part?' and then go forward."
He has regrets over a swinging-arm tackle on Matt Dawson once upon a time; also at bringing a tear to the eye of a female steward at Leicester, though none at all about standing his ground with their supporters en masse. "I hate mobs," he says.
Unsurprisingly, he has followed the General Medical Council case against Wendy Chapman, the doctor involved in the Harlequins fake-blood affair. "You don't have to be a law student to know what she did was wrong," says Venter. "I see her as a bit of a victim. I can picture the pressure she was under. And it puts our responsibility as directors of rugby into perspective. Can we get people pulling in the right direction? Wendy acted in what she thought was the good of the club." He stops short of saying it would never have happened at Saracens but it is reasonable to make that assumption. "I'm not holier than thou," he says. "I don't think I'm better than other people. All I know is it's a constant thought process with me – where did I get it wrong, because then I can improve. Why say at Saracens we want to finish first or second? No! Let's be better than that. Let's be unbelievable, every day. Winning's not the object. Playing the perfect rugby game is the object."
Sooner or later, Venter admits, he will return home to his medical practice. Does he have an ambition to coach the Springboks? The answer is a surprise. "No, no, no. Uh-uh. It's too all 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. When I was young I wanted it more than anything. When you get old your priorities change." But he's only 40? "Yeah, but you become more wise. When you're young you think you can change the world immediately. Now you know that [it] takes a bit of time."Reuse content