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Not just a defence coach

The announcement that Brendan Venter would be joining the Springbok coaching team to oversee the defence and exits probably should have gone further if there was complete honesty.

For 47-year-old Venter will almost certainly not just be a defence coach in the Bok set-up. He has seldom been “just” anything in any of the coaching positions he has been involved in, for his role is usually understated.

Take his stint at the Sharks as a prime example. When John Plumtree was unceremoniously exited from the Durban rugby scene in 2013, it was to Brad MacLeod-Henderson that the new Sharks CEO at the time, John Smit, turned as Plumtree’s official replacement.

Only that wasn’t really the full story. MacLeod-Henderson was a young coach who’d previously mainly been coaching at school level. The reaction of people in the know to his appointment was “How can that be possible?”

Only there was much more to it than met the eye. Venter, the medical doctor from Cape Town (well, Strand to be precise), was involved in a consultancy capacity as a technical director, but was really the coach in all but name.

But while Smit had Venter in mind for a full time role when he effectively axed Plumtree, it was never Venter’s plan. The bottom line with him is that he just doesn’t go for full-time jobs in rugby as his other career in medicine is too important for him. There are some who work in rugby who believe that is a fault. Someone who has worked closely with Venter in several roles and jobs once told me that he felt Venter sold himself short by not committing himself lock, stock and two smoking barrels and that as a result the unions or clubs that contracted him perhaps short-changed themselves too.

That may have been the case when Venter was involved with the Sharks under Gary Gold in 2015, but in 2013 he was the brains around which a famous Currie Cup win was formulated. The Sharks went to Cape Town as rank underdogs for the final, but Venter’s brilliant tactical brain came to the fore and the Western Province weaknesses were cleverly exposed and exploited.

The only problem was that Venter never intended staying with the Sharks in that initial stint for longer than three months. History reflects that Jake White took over as Sharks director of rugby and while the Sharks managed to win the South African Super Rugby conference for the first time under White, many of the good work done by Venter directing a change in culture that the players thrived on was undone.

Venter’s line was that although rugby might be a player’s job, he should think of himself as more than that. He encouraged the growth of the individual away from the game. He promoted a family environment that had helped Saracens flourish when he was working for the English club. His approach to coaching was similar to the participatory management style of former Proteas and India cricket coach Gary Kirsten.

When White came in, he told the players they were rugby players and were owned by the union. His school masterly approach was very different, and it led to behind the scenes unhappiness that played a role in White leaving the union.

Venter has many strengths. Those players who have worked with him speak highly of the environment he helps create at the unions he has been connected to, but he also clearly ranks among the likes of a Rassie Erasmus as being possessed of the sort of heavyweight rugby brain that perhaps the Boks lacked in Allister Coetzee’s first year in charge.

He has worked closely with Coetzee before and they have long been confidants. It wasn’t a coincidence that Venter suddenly popped up as the co-ordinator of the national coaching indaba that was Coetzee’s brain child last year. Coetzee has a high regard for his brain and his abilities. And after being out-coached by Venter in that 2013 domestic final, so he should.

I am not sure how long Venter will be involved with the Boks. Judging from his public comments so far, neither is Coetzee. What we should be fairly certain of though is that while he is officially employed on a consultancy basis and is just a designated “defence and exits” coach, his role and his influence will extend way beyond that. And that can only be a good thing.

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