Burger's Wild West ways amaze Venter, stun Sale

Saracens 28 Sale 13
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The Independent Online

Now that his problems with the old school tie brigade are safely behind him – as the new best friend of the Rugby Football Union's disciplinary class, he can expect to be whisked off to the East India Club for a four-course slap-up any day now – Brendan Venter must now start addressing an entirely different issue: namely, Saracens' unnerving habit of saving their most authoritative performances for the crummiest surroundings. Eight days after watching his team under-perform horribly in front of 75,000 spectators at Twickenham, the South African saw them rediscover the best of themselves at Vicarage Road, which looks even more like a bombsite this season than it did last. The crowd for round two of the Premiership campaign? Suffice to say it was 69,000 less than had been for round one.

"What disappointed me at Twickenham was our failure to play with intensity for the full 80 minutes," Venter said after this comprehensive victory. "We treated that game as though we thought we were too important for it. If we're to be successful, we have to play like Exeter and Leeds play every week. If we don't, we'll be overtaken."

This choice of comparison was instructive, for it went to the very heart of a rugby philosophy based squarely on hard work and a heightened sense of togetherness. Neither Exeter nor Leeds can lay claim to the quality of player Venter has at his disposal, largely because they cannot match the spending power generated by a boardroom inhabited exclusively by multi-millionaires, but there is no mistaking the depth of their determination to make professional rugby work for them. Saracens, for so long the most profligate of Premiership clubs, are developing the same kind of desire. Now that the penny has dropped, all those hundreds of thousands of pounds actually mean something.

If anyone embodies the new Saracens spirit, it is the Namibian flanker Jacques Burger, whose hang-em high, Wild West approach to the union game makes him the most compelling loose forward in the Premiership. When the club signed the much talked-about Scotland back-rower Kelly Brown earlier this year, it seemed Burger might find himself selectorially squeezed: after all, Venter already possessed the best young breakaway in England in Andy Saull and the classiest of imported No 8s in Ernst Joubert. Saull's injury problems have given Burger a window of opportunity, and yesterday, he crashed through it so spectacularly that Vicarage Road was covered in splintered glass.

"I can't tell you how brilliant the guy is," Venter remarked. "When I look at his stats, I stand amazed. Jacques is exceptional for us, to the extent that if I had 15 of him, rugby would be the easiest game in the world. I have five back-rowers, and as a couple of them can play more than one role, I'm in a position to mix things up. The key to success in an environment where too much rugby is being played is to use the squad. The answer is not having a bigger squad, but having a squad where everyone plays. Jacques is key for us in that respect."

Burger was the principal reason why Sale, despite the best efforts of their own open-side flanker David Seymour, spent next to no time on the front foot. Seymour, playing against his former employers, gave everything of himself, and was rewarded with a try of the "what the hell happened there?" variety when Tom Brady, the teenaged wing, picked a restart clean out of the air and fed him a scoring pass. But for much of the contest, he was blown away by his opposite number.

Much stronger at close quarters, Saracens scored a close-range try through Schalk Brits in the first half and another through Deon Carstens in the second. They then rubbed it in with a late strike from the new signing David Strettle, who touched down after a characteristically clever pass from Alex Goode. Strettle was introduced at the interval, even though the unfeasibly rapid Noah Cato had spent the first 40 minutes beating Sale defenders two by two.

As for Goode, his career move from full-back to outside-half has yet to work out to everyone's satisfaction. He unpicked the Sale defence more than once, but it will take him months rather than weeks to find his bearings and until that process is complete, Saracens will miss the beautifully timed, precisely angled runs from deep positions that marked him out as a player of rare ability last season.

Venter's predecessor as director of rugby, the former Wallaby coach Eddie Jones, believes Goode has taken a wrong turning. "Alex should be England's full-back," he argued recently, "with Delon Armitage at outside centre." Jones may well be proved right – it is not entirely unknown for the Australian to hit the nail on the head, after all – but the signs are that Saracens are fully committed to playing their most sophisticated distributor at No 10.

This much is certain. Both Goode and Saracens deserve better than a crowd of 6,000 or so, spread around a stadium that cries out for demolition. Venter is close to sorting out most things, but not even he can find a quick way out of Watford.

Saracens: Tries: Brits, Carstens, Strettle. Conversions: Wigglesworth 2. Penalties: Wigglesworth 3. Sale: Try: Seymour. Conversion: MacLeod. Penalties: MacLeod 2.

Saracens: C Wyles; M Tagicakibau, A Powell, B Barritt (D Hougaard 76), N Cato (D Strettle h-t); A Goode, R Wigglesworth (N De Kock 51); D Carstens (M Parr 56), S Brits (E Reynecke 63), C Nieto (P Du Plessis 51), H Vyvyan, M Botha (S Borthwick h-t), K Brown (J Melck 80), J Burger, E Joubert (capt).

Sale: M Cueto; T Brady, K Tonetti, P Williams, B Cohen; N MacLeod, D Peel; A Sheridan (E Lewis-Roberts 62), N Briggs (A Croall 62), K Wihongi (J Forster 62), N Rouse, J Gaskell (capt, W Lewaravu 33), C Fearns (S Cox 78), D Seymour, S Koyamaibole.

Referee: W Barnes (London).