Venter seeks magical environment at Sharks
A shared vision and his high regard for John Smit as a person and a leader who breeds success and inspires people around him is what prompted Brendan Venter to take on the challenge of being the first man to fill the newly created position of Director of Rugby at the Sharks.
Venter will link up with the Sharks for the first time on Sunday at the start of a training camp that will mark the beginning of the build-up to a Currie Cup season that will see last year’s beaten finalists going into the competition with a completely revamped coaching team.
While the events surrounding his appointment, which was announced at the same time as new chief executive Smit’s decision to drop John Plumtree as head coach, thrust Venter into the media headlines, the spotlight is something the former Springbok centre most emphatically doesn’t want.
The way Venter envisages it, he will be taking on a background role as a mentor to new head coach Brad McLeod-Henderson and his assistant Sean Everitt, and as an adviser to Smit.
“My role is not going to be a high-profile one at all, it will be John and Brad who will be the face of the Sharks going forward and they are the guys who will be doing the media interviews and be in the spotlight,” said Venter in his first interview since accepting his new position.
“There are two reasons why that will be the case. The first one relates to my personal reticence to give media interviews. I know that 95% of the mainstream rugby writers are ethical people, but there are a few who spoil it and I have been burned in the past. It’s not so much that as a coach you get misquoted, but rather that quotes often get used selectively.
“You’ve got to be careful who you talk to, and I was reminded of that this past weekend when I was targeted for the third time by what I can only describe as an unprovoked attack from Rudolph Lake of Rapport. He writes under the pseudonym ‘The Mole’ but everyone knows it’s him.
“The second reason I won’t be doing many interviews relates to my objective at the Sharks. While I intend to be very hands-on as a coach during the coming Currie Cup season, and will be extremely busy helping devise tactics and operating as a sounding board, I want Brad as the head coach to develop into that role. I am going to be playing a background role helping bring the coaches through and trying to ensure that the right culture is created to enable the team to thrive.”
IMPOSSIBLE TO TURN DOWN
Venter says it was getting to know the former Bok captain, Smit, during their time together at Saracens that made the Sharks job an almost impossible one to turn down when it was offered to him.
“When I spent time with John I saw so many parallels between him and Morne du Plessis and Francois Pienaar in the way he lives his life. I know it is an old cliché, but it is nonetheless true that if you surround yourself with good people, the rest will follow. All three of them have personalities and abilities that make them incredibly successful not just at rugby, but at life itself.”
Venter shares his time between coaching and his other life as a medical doctor. While he is much sought after for his coaching expertise, he says that he will never allow the winning or losing of rugby matches to define him.
“I consider myself to be someone that tries to be a good husband and father, and a good doctor. I would like to be successful as a coach but I don’t define myself by my achievements as a rugby player or coach,” he said.
It shouldn’t be a surprise then to learn that creating an environment where players can develop as people and live successful lives away from the field is a big part of Venter’s vision for the Sharks.
“I probably have a different approach to many when it comes to rugby coaching. For me it is all about creating a good environment. Creating an environment that people can express themselves in and perform in is essential. Rugby is essentially a game and while we try and win every time we play, everything has to be put in perspective.
"The objective must always be to develop people as human beings as rugby will always just stay a game.
“If as a coach I have to bug opposition changerooms, or try and interfere with the opposition coaching team’s radio frequencies, or tap into their video sessions in order to get an advantage, then somewhere along the line I have lost the plot.
"There is never an instance in rugby where a coach should allow himself to sacrifice his integrity in order to win a game. I apply that same philosophy to the team. We will try incredibly hard, but as Dr Danie Craven once said, the way we live will be the way we play, and with that the way we play will end up being the way we live.
"My vision for the Sharks is that apart from playing rugby we will develop our off-field skills and live successful lives. The bottom line for me, and this is why I compared John Smit to Morne du Plessis and Francois Pienaar, is that if you have integrity you tend to be more successful.”
If you’re thinking after reading those words that Venter assesses character and personality along with playing ability when doing his recruitment, you would be correct.
And Venter says he was quickly bought in by Smit’s desire to recreate the atmosphere that drove the Sharks’ success when he was a young player and the team was being led by Gary Teichmann.
“The guys who played for the Sharks in that era were a special bunch of people. They were more than just teammates on the rugby field who had a professional job to do. They were friends off it too. Guys like Henry Honiball, Dick Muir, Mark Andrews, Adrian Garvey and Teichmann were switched on when they were on the field but they had a great time off it too. John wants us to be more than just a team, and I can relate to what he wants. I have agreed to help him put things in place that will hopefully make that possible.”
Venter made waves at the start of his stint as Director of Rugby at English club Saracens by sacking 14 players, many of them stalwarts, but he doesn’t foresee that being necessary at the Sharks.
“I will work with everyone and give them a fair chance to prove themselves. I think the Sharks' recruitment has been done really well in the past. And it is important to stress that John Plumtree never did anything wrong. He was successful as a coach. It’s just that John (Smit) is looking for something different, something that goes beyond just rugby.
“It’s not just about trophies, although those are obviously important, and they will come if you create an environment that is special.”
It was the special environment he had worked on creating at Saracens with chief executive Edward Griffiths and head coach Mark McCall over a period of five years that made it impossible for Venter to part ways with the English club when the Sharks appointment came up. He will continue to serve as technical director to Saracens while working for the Sharks.
MORE THAN A RUGBY CLUB
“To other people Saracens is just a successful rugby club, but to us it is much more than that, and it is built around friendships and memories. It is a place where every person who has been involved with it has become a better human being. People from outside may not be able to see that, but people who work with the players on a daily basis can.
“In life, doing something well for a short while is not that difficult. This is my fifth year at Saracens, together with Edward and Mark, and it is from the longevity of the project that we derive the most pride.”
Venter, capped 17 times for the Springboks during his playing career, has filled the position of technical director for the past few years while also running his medical practice in the Strand, just outside Cape Town. A decade ago that fact may have been confounding, but not in the technical age we live in.
“Each player has an iPad with an app on it, and I am able to monitor training sessions and coaching meetings on a daily basis from South Africa without it being any problem. My job is to put stats together and assess performances. I watch every game and analyse what we do and fly to the UK once every month to talk to the coaches.
“But while I fly out and see them in the flesh only once a month, I have almost daily interaction with them when I am in the Cape. They see me as someone who they can bounce ideas off without worrying if I may have hidden agendas. It’s a system that has worked well.”
Venter will continue to fly to the UK once a month while under contract to the Sharks, but his new team will see a lot more of him than Saracens do currently as he intends to be fully hands on during the three months of the Currie Cup season. And that is even though he will continue to work at his medical practice.
“It’s going to be really hectic and busy for me, but then there is truth in that quote from Braveheart: ‘All men die, a few men truly live, and if we don’t try things we will never know what we can achieve’. I am going to have to wake up at 4am every Monday and fly to Durban. I will spend Monday and Tuesday in Durban, attending all the Sharks meetings and training sessions.
“Wednesday is the day off at the Sharks, so I will fly back to Cape Town on the Tuesday night and put in a full day of work at my medical practice. Then it will be back to Durban on the Thursday for the captain’s practice. I will spend Friday at the medical practice before flying to where the Sharks are due to play either on the Friday night or the Saturday, depending on when the game is.”
In terms of the on-field changes that can be anticipated from the Sharks in the coming months, Venter says the biggest departure from the past will be a far greater emphasis on rotation in selection.
“There will be a rotational system rather than a top team of 15 as such. It is my firm belief that rugby teams win matches, rugby squads win championships. It will be our ability as a group that will determine whether we are successful, not our strength as individuals. I would rather see the workload divided than have the same team play 40 games in a row.”
In terms of changes to the Sharks’ playing style and improvements that need to be made, Venter doesn’t appear to be focusing on any areas that require a radical amount of special attention.
“I’ve been through the stats for this past Super Rugby season and there is nothing that really jumps out at you,” he says.
“The Sharks conceded the third-fewest tries in the competition, and also scored the third-most tries. There really wasn’t anything that was particularly poor, and ultimately I think it was because of the injuries that the team ended up in mid-table. As I say, my primary focus is to change the culture and try and bring that specialness to the Sharks that John (Smit) is looking for.”