Venter gives Saracens fear factor

Bath 11 Saracens 12
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The Independent Online

Brendan Venter has always been for real – much too real for comfort, according to the midfield opponents he routinely sliced up during his days as one of the more implacable Springbok centres in living memory – but the same has not always been said of Saracens, the club he has guided to the top of the Guinness Premiership in the few short months since the most recent of the north London club's many managerial upheavals. As one member of their staff said at the weekend: "It used to be the case that when the going got tough, we didn't." And now? "Now," he replied, "it's very different."

Venter (below) could unnerve virtually anyone at any time of year, such is the crusading ferocity of his commitment to whatever happens to be his pet cause of the moment. At the Recreation Ground on the afternoon of Halloween, he was positively scary. When he materialised in the ramshackle old cricket pavilion to answer a few questions regarding his team's seventh league victory in as many outings, he ordered the comparatively saintly Edward Griffiths to join him at the top table. As chief executive, it is Griffiths' job to tell Venter what to do rather than the other way round, but he decided he was in no position to argue. In this world, a wise man chooses his battle extremely carefully.

Griffiths sees it as part of his job to take the club's average home gate through the five-figure barrier, hence the bold decision to move certain games away from Vicarage Road in Watford, which has all the seductive appeal of a Salvation Army hostel, and into the plush surroundings of the new Wembley. There have been no obvious signs of success to date, despite the winning rugby generated by Venter. "We've seen it's not easy," the chief executive acknowledged, "but at least the playing side is doing its bit."

That it is, not only in the Home Counties but in far-flung parts of the country where victories have been devilishly hard to come by down the years: first in Newcastle, up there in the frozen wastes, and now down in the West Country. To a man, the Saracens players worked their socks off to prevail in this one, refusing to yield to a late Bath onslaught sparked by Michael Claassens' close-range try three minutes before the end of normal time. But for the tackling of the centre Brad Barritt and the two flankers, Wikus van Heerden and Andy Saull, the final scoreline might easily have told a different tale.

"Everything that could have gone wrong for us in the second half did so, yet our character saw us through," pronounced Venter, one of precious few Saracens bosses to utter the C-word without reducing his audience to hysterics since the great Michael Lynagh was pulling the strings from outside-half more than a decade ago. "Had we lost, I wouldn't have changed my view of the effort my players put into the match. If I could have one virtue above all others in a team, it would be courage. I thought we were quite outstanding, defensively speaking."

Two lovely first-half strikes – the first from the energetic Saull after a 40-metre scamper from the extravagantly gifted hooker Schalk Brits; the second from Noah Cato, pinballing over in the right corner after a concerted attack on the other side of the field – suggested they are not the worst in the attacking sense, either, and Cato might easily have nabbed a second after the break. Instead, he fumbled the ball in the act of scoring and this, with a fluffed penalty from the generally reliable Glen Jackson, presented Bath with an opening.

Given that the West Countrymen have been losing games in the same quantity as Saracens have been winning them, their desperation to capitalise was as understandable as it was palpable. David Flatman had the Saracens front row on a pancake for much of the second half – did the England selectors call up every other Bath prop by mistake, or is something wrong with their eyesight? – and there was a performance of old-school ruggedness from Danny Grewcock, who can, on a good day, be even more worrying than Venter. But their attacking game was far too narrow, their kicking out of hand clueless. For all the huffing and puffing up front, they asked too few questions of Van Heerden and his knock 'em down merchants.

Can it be true, then? Might Nigel Wray, the financier who bought Saracens as the sport inched its way towards professionalism and has spent upwards of £25m on the project, finally be at risk of getting his money's worth? This was one subject Venter was unwilling to discuss, but there were indications on Saturday that after going through head coaches and directors of rugby in the way a fox goes through a chicken coop – Mark Evans, Francois Pienaar, Wayne Shelford, Alan Zondagh, Rod Kafer, Steve Diamond and Eddie Jones were all victims of what might be termed "interesting" ends – the basket-case club of the Premiership has finally taken a grip on reality.

Yes, there are a few South Africans in the side (as well as in the management); no, the Rugby Football Union does not particularly like the fact that, along with Gloucester, London Irish and Northampton, they usually fall short of the England-qualified threshold of 14 in a match-day squad of 23. But Saracens have produced some outstanding home-grown youngsters: Cato, Saull and the full-back Alex Goode all played the whole game here and there are others bubbling under. What is more, they are winning. And that, whatever the RFU might say, is the point of the exercise.

Bath: Try Claassens. Penalties Davis, Cuthbert. Saracens: Tries Saull, Cato; Conversion Jackson.

Bath: J Cuthbert; M Stephenson, T Cheeseman, S Hape, M Carraro; R Davis, M Claassens (capt); D Flatman (D Barnes, 65), P Dixon, A Jarvis (M Lilley, 76), P Short, D Grewcock, S Hooper, J Salvi, B Skirving (J Fa'amatuainu, 16).

Saracens: A Goode; N Cato, K Ratuvou, B Barritt, C Wyles; G Jackson, N De Kock; M Aguero (R Gill, 59), S Brits (F Ongaro, 76), C Nieto (R Skuse, 53), H Vyvyan (J Melck, 61), M Botha (T Ryder, 53), W Van Heerden (capt), A Saull (Aguero, 81-87), E Joubert.

Referee: C White (Gloucestershire).