Brendan Venter will not be at Twickenham in person this evening, but he will certainly be there in spirit.
He will also be there in cardboard, papier-mâché and a range of other materials if the hard core of Saracens supporters, who rightly count themselves among the most boisterously enthusiastic in England club rugby, deliver on plans to dispense thousands of Venter masks to the paying public ahead of the Guinness Premiership final with Leicester, in protest at the South African's exclusion from the event.
Today is the first day of Venter's 10-week match-day coaching ban, imposed for "behaviour prejudicial to the interests of the game", but as it coincides with the last game of a nine-month domestic campaign, it is the only day that actually matters. The Saracens director of rugby will watch the contest on television at his home in St Albans, in the company of his youngest son, and may find himself wondering whether he is staring at his bathroom mirror. A sea of Venter faces in a crowd of 80,000-plus will be a serious embarrassment to the governing body.
It will be more embarrassing still if Saracens upset the odds by defeating the holders, winning the trophy and becoming the fourth club to claim the title since Newcastle won the inaugural tournament in 1997. Even if Edward Griffiths, their sharp-tongued chief executive, manages to button his lip at the moment of triumph, there is every chance of one of Venter's coaching lieutenants offering an opinion on the subject of the moment.
But if Saracens are to prevail, they will have to subdue a Leicester pack in full warpaint – a pack so formidably equipped in all departments that the current England tight-head prop, Dan Cole, must settle for a seat on the bench, along with loose forwards as effective as Craig Newby and Ben Woods. Earlier this month, an in-form Bath travelled to Welford Road in the best possible shape to win the semi-final and end a long losing run against their fiercest rivals. What did they achieve? Nada. The Tigers forwards were too mean, too cohesive and too good for them.
"Bath wanted to throw the ball around, and when you face opponents with that capability, you don't enter into the festivities, do you?" So says Richard Cockerill, the Leicester head coach, and it is difficult to argue with his logic. The Midlanders featured in each of the last five finals and rarely looked like missing out on this one, thanks to their proficiency up front. They are not quite the rock-star team of old, give or take Martin Castrogiovanni and a couple of others, but hard-bitten operators such as Louis Deacon and Jordan Crane make them horribly difficult to beat.
It is impossible to see Saracens grinding out a victory: London Irish, well equipped at forward, tried it a year ago and came up short. If they are to break Leicester, they will have to do it in the grand style, with their most gifted footballers – the full-back Alex Goode, the outside-half Glen Jackson, the hooker Schalk Brits and the No 8 Ernst Joubert – to the fore. And for these people to feature they need to see the ball, which explains Steve Borthwick's unexpected return as line-out supremo.
Brits, one of the campaign's stand-out performers, has been running rings round opponents for months and is no mood to rein himself in on account of Leicester's remarkable record in this competition. "We've been waiting for this moment," the South African said. "There is something special happening at Saracens and while we're not close to the finished product, I'm so glad to be a part of the process of growing. At the start of the season we played conservatively for the benefit of the side: it wasn't beautiful rugby, but we didn't lose. Now we are attacking, we have even more confidence."
Saracens will need all that confidence – all their nerve and courage and resilience – to come through. Venter will not be there to help them maximise these crucial ingredients, but his treatment by the Rugby Football Union has armed them with a weapon they would not otherwise have had: a burning sense of injustice.Reuse content