How the Sarries revival began with beers and straight talking

Brendan Venter has transformed his side's game. Chris Hewett finds out how he did it
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The Independent Online

The story goes like this: Saracens, early Premiership pacesetters fallen on stony ground, catch an early train to Brighton for two days of beer-fuelled bonding in the beachside bars.

When they return, the players who have lost five Premiership games in six and can barely buy a try start chucking the ball around like the All Blacks, with a touch of the Harlem Globetrotters thrown in for good measure.

Can six pints of Old Gutbucket, a bag of chips and a bit of a laugh really have fuelled this transformation? Brendan Venter, their director of rugby and in many respects the star turn of this domestic campaign, rolls his eyes. "Way too much has been made of it," he says, firmly. (Venter says everything firmly.) "The thing to understand is that the rugby we're playing now is based around the things we worked on in pre-season. You don't simply say: 'Today we run the ball, tomorrow we don't.' Rugby doesn't work like that.

"Yes, we decided to get away and refocus, and it struck us that we didn't need to fly all the way to the Canary Islands to do it. We had a nice train ride, booked into a nice hotel and had a nice chat about what we wanted to achieve over the remaining weeks of the season, which took about 90 minutes. We talked about the things in the club that were energy-giving, the things that were energy-stealing, and the best way of doing more of the things on the first list and doing less of those on the second. It was a good discussion: lots of honesty and emotional clarity, no weird mumbo-jumbo.

"But it's wrong to say that we're playing the way we are now because of two days on the South Coast. We had this kind of rugby in mind when we first came together last summer and I always felt we were capable of delivering it if the conditions were right. Everything we do here is evidence-based, and 65 per cent of all actions performed by a rugby player are to do with passing. Never in all my career, either as a player or a coach, have I been involved with a side that has so many people who pass the ball so beautifully. I've said it all along, and now people are seeing it for themselves.

"You have to be realistic. Look at the Lions in South Africa last summer. They had brilliant attackers playing a brilliant attacking game, but in the end it's not attack that wins series or wins tournaments. If you want to win, you need strength in the pillars of rugby: defence, the kicking game, the set-piece. When the rugby was different before Christmas, we worked hard on those pillars because we knew they would bring us results while we progressed more slowly elsewhere."

Venter, a World Cup-winning centre with the Springboks in 1995 and a passionate contributor to the London Irish cause during two stints there in the late Nineties and early Noughties, had – still has – strong opinions on why progress was as slow as it turned out to be. He laid the blame at the feet of the referees and made a public pronouncement to that effect following his side's defeat by Leicester in January. This sporting Grand Remonstrance landed him in the disciplinary soup: he copped a match-day coaching ban, albeit of the suspended variety, and was ordered to apologise to the Devon-based official David Rose.

Yet it is now clear that the good doctor (Venter still has a GP practice in Cape Town) did the sport a favour, in a martyrish kind of way. Adjustments to the way the referees approach the tackle area have resulted in a dramatic shift away from the safety-first mindset that had a numbing effect on the first half of the season. Suddenly, union has a triple-A rating: it is ambitious, adventurous and increasingly alluring to the paying public.

"When I made my remarks about referees I was very deliberate in my choice of words," he recalls, sounding slightly less apologetic now the enforced apology is behind him. "I said exactly what I intended to say. Rugby had gone to unbelievable lengths to make itself more attractive to more people, to add some sparkle and spectacle, and it was obvious to me the problem was not the law, but the interpretation of the law. There has been no change of law even now. We've agreed we want the tacklers to get themselves out of there much faster so the ball-carriers are given a reasonable amount of time in which to exercise their options. The result is the rugby we're seen in recent weeks. And the biggest compliment goes to... the referees!

"My frustration came from the fact that tacklers were routinely cheating – and stuffing up the game as a consequence – while we were being whiter than white. We were saying to the refs, 'Tell us what you want and we'll give it to you', but others were doing something else. Was our approach the wrong one? Of course not. How can you base everything you do, all your individual and collective preparation, on honesty and discipline, and then say these things don't matter when you're actually playing a game? The worst thing anyone can say to me is: 'It's all right, I got away with it.' I don't want my players trying to get away with things. When I hear it, I go ballistic."

Saracens are a point shy of a place in the Premiership semi-finals. This afternoon they travel to Northampton for a contest loaded with baggage from the highly entertaining spat over the services of the loose-head prop Soane Tonga'uiha, who signed to play for Venter's team next season before changing his mind and opting for an extended tour of duty in the East Midlands. In a fortnight, they head for the even less-accommodating terrain of Leicester. It is a brutal run-in, but Venter is convinced his players are in a sufficiently positive frame of mind to take what they need from each fixture.

"There are very few energy- stealing issues left at the club," he remarks. "I could have stayed in South Africa and been perfectly happy but I came here because I saw the potential for creating something special. I think everyone involved feels the same, which is why there's such a fantastic vibe about the place.

"When I was at London Irish, there was a definite sense of ambition, a real sense of mission. But there were huge financial constraints on what we were able to do, so I found myself saying: 'Right, just give me a team and I'll coach it.' Here, it's different. I'm not saying we don't have an awareness of financial reality: in the old days Saracens were notorious for overpaying people, but if you saw the wage details now you'd think, 'Gee, that's pretty reasonable'. Yet there is still this feeling the sky's the limit. If people perform and deliver, they're rewarded. We've had instances of players being given a wage rise while in contract because we've said: 'The way you're playing and contributing, we can't in all conscience pay you what we're paying. Have some more.' Is there another sports club in the world where that happens?"

It is 95 per cent certain that come semi-final day, Venter and his men will be back at Northampton or Leicester. It does not appear to worry him one jot. "We have plans for winning these next two games," he says. "If they don't work, we'll have different plans for the semi-final, whoever it's against. If it doesn't work then, there'll be yet another plan in the summer. We want to be a top club in Europe." And if you fail? "If we fail," he replies, "I'll go back home." Suffice to say he intends to be in England for a good while yet.

My Other Life

"I still spend a lot of time on my medical practice, helping to manage it from here. I'll go back and work for a couple of weeks in the summer. The practice has been going 10 years and I see it as a project, as I see Saracens as a project. Life is a series of projects: it's the way God made us. The moment we grow stale, something in us dies. I keep up to speed in a practical sense by treating some of my players for injuries. I stitched people half a dozen times this season. It saves them a trip to A and E."