Saracens' relations with the Rugby Football Union, already under severe strain, were stretched to snapping-point yesterday when they found themselves the targets of the fiercest public criticism since the governing body took Harlequins to task over the fake blood affair late last summer. Judge Jeff Blackett, the governing body's disciplinary officer, accused the Watford-based club of failing to uphold the game's core values, which, he said, "we neglect at our peril".
Blackett's hard-hitting comments were contained in his published judgement relating to the case of the Saracens director of rugby Brendan Venter, who is currently preparing an appeal against a match-day coaching ban that, if upheld, will deny him access to Twickenham and its environs for his team's Premiership final with Leicester tomorrow week.
On Tuesday night, Venter was found guilty of making provocative and inappropriate gestures and comments to Leicester supporters during a league match at Welford Road earlier this month. It emerged yesterday that the fourth official at the game, the former international referee Brian Campsall, moved seats after repeated approaches from Venter, although Campsall stressed that the South African was neither discourteous nor abusive.
"This incident has highlighted a very worrying trend in rugby whereby some participants and spectators have lost sight of the core values of the sport," Blackett wrote. "The response of the Saracens management to these proceedings has been very disappointing and statements on their website... do the club no credit. Their staff were clearly involved in some unpleasant events on 8 May, which could have led to significant crowd trouble, but they sought to lay the blame elsewhere."
Immediately after Tuesday's verdict, the Saracens hierarchy registered their dissatisfaction, both with the decision and with the way the case had been handled. But Blackett's account was every bit as confrontational. Registering his disappointment that Venter "did not seem to understand the seriousness of this case", he criticised him for his insensitivity in blowing kisses and bowing to an already fractious crowd, his failure to control members of his coaching team and, unusually, for his contemptuous attitude towards the disciplinary panel.
"Witnesses spoke of his arrogant behaviour and the panel witnessed a certain disdain from Venter when he appeared at the hearing [for example, by coming back to hear his sanction eating a biscuit and throwing sweet papers across the table]," wrote Blackett, adding: "If he cannot control his emotional outbursts, he is likely to come before a disciplinary panel again."
As is their wont these days, Saracens refused to take any of this laying down. They immediately issued a statement reflecting their "sadness and disappointment" at Blackett's "extraordinary attack" before unleashing the outspoken chief executive Edward Griffiths, who was quickly in full flow. "This kind of public attack on a leading club does the RFU no credit at all," he said. "We find ourselves in a ludicrous situation when Brendan Venter... has been barred from attending the Premiership final because, during our recent match at Leicester, he was given a seat with a restricted view. He stood to follow play and was shouted down and abused by home supporters.
"Blackett's judgement borders on self-parody, citing Venter eating a biscuit as alleged evidence of disdain for the process. Why did the RFU provide biscuits if they were not to be eaten? Perhaps it is time for English rugby to be run like a modern professional sport, and not a rural prep school."
Venter, found not guilty of a second charge of pushing a female Leicester supporter, will be permitted to work with his players ahead of the final, but is forbidden any contact with them on the day of the match.Reuse content