Brendan Venter has never owned a pair of rose tinted glasses. The 1995 World Cup winning Springbok centre, who built the foundations that have allowed Saracens to dominate European rugby, is driven by a desire to help others reach their potential if they are prepared to put in the hard yards.
That is why he has agreed to return to relegated London Irish in their hour of need and his belief in the potential of the Exiles can be gauged by the fact he turned down approaches from two Premiership clubs (he will not reveal their names) who also asked him for help.
In his previous Irish life, Venter was player coach when they won the Powergen Cup in 2002 and the club seemed destined for more success even after his departure. They come agonisingly close to winning the Premiership title against Leicester in 2009 losing 10-9 in the final. That team dissipated and you could argue that Irish have been running just to stand still ever since. They flirted with relegation until the drop became a reality at the end of last season and head coach Tom Coventry and key players began leaving at a worrying rate through a revolving door that was threatening to spin out of control.
Exiles fans have become used to losing talented players at the end of each season and 15 of the best are listed below. It makes for sorry reading. How could a club that helped so many young stars break into test rugby get it so wrong? Relegation from the Premiership is estimated to cost a club around £2m in lost revenue, forcing players to make crucial decisions about their futures, particularly those with international careers.
As the bad news continued to pile up, Bob Casey, the chief executive and captain of the team that lost to Leicester in 2009, picked up the phone and called Dr Venter, who has a GP practise in the Western Cape. Casey knew that after quitting as Sarries director of rugby in 2010, Venter had continued in a Technical Director role until Mark McCall and his coaching team were firmly in place. Venter used to fly into London and link up with Sarries at various points in the season and that is exactly how he will help Nick Kennedy, the new Irish director of rugby, and the club’s coaching team.
Kennedy has moved up from the club’s Academy where they have assembled a formidable group of young players headed by first team regulars Johnny Williams and Theo Brophy-Clews, two of England’s U20 Junior World Cup winners. The coaching team under Kennedy is made up of former players Declan Danaher, Paul Hodgson and George Skivington along with Clark Laidlaw, who was part of last season’s management group.
While they are all highly motivated, talented and totally committed to getting Irish back into the Premiership at the first attempt, this quintet lacks the kind of experience that Venter offers. The former Springbok centre is acutely aware of the dangers lurking in the Championship and you only have to remember the agonies Bristol suffered before they reached the top flight to recognise the enormity of the challenge facing Irish in the coming season.
That is why he has already started what will become his normal working life for the next ten months. Venter will spend one week a month with Irish, working at their state-of-the-art Hazlewood training facility, pushing coaches and players hard. Venter doesn’t need to prove anything to anybody in English rugby and this isn’t an ego trip.
After tracking him down on a family safari holiday close to the Kruger National Park in South Africa this week, I can confirm he is just as committed as ever to the sport and while he is a qualified doctor, the 47-year-old does not have a panacea to cure all rugby ills.
“It is going to be a similar basis as with Sarries:” Venter told the Rugby Paper. “I am going to be working with Nick and the coaches and I will be there a week a month. These young coaches brought a lot of energy to the club’s Academy and when I worked with them recently, they were so positive and are a bunch of potential stars. It’s the same feeling I got when I worked at Sarries.
“I said to everyone at Irish that while all we have experience in a lot of areas but very few of us have been in the Championship. Our experience means nothing. We have to respect our opponents and to understand that it won’t be easy. They are going to be coming at us with everything they have got every week. We are going to be the prized scalp. If you know that then you will fight fire with fire.
“There were two Premiership clubs interested in using me as a consultant and I had to make a decision on the three offers. When I thanked the other two clubs for their interest I explained my relationship with Irish was the game breaker.”
Venter has spoken to McCall about his return to English rugby and while he admits the club are currently no threat to the European and Premiership champions, the aim is to get back up to that level. “ I phoned Mark (McCall) before I made my decision because he is a friend:”added Venter.” The relationship with Irish needs to be beneficial both ways. There is no time limit on the deal and I don’t want to be anywhere if I am not adding value.”
With the challenges that lie ahead, there is no doubt Venter will be crucial to the club’s bid to bounce straight back to the Premiership. It is going to be an exciting ride.
Fifteen players London Irish have lost; Delon Armitage, Seffon Armitage, Jonathan Joseph, Anthony Watson, Marland Yard, Alex Corbisiero. Sean Maitland, Matt Symon, Matt Garvey, Jamie Gibson, Tom Homer, Sailosi Tagicakibau, Dan Leo, Halani Aulika, James Short.
The Rugby Paper