By Paul Morgan, editor of Rugby World Magazine
One thing’s for sure Saracens are in far better shape than the were before Brendan Venter walked through the door at Vicarage Road, signing off yesterday with an another victory, before he gives up a full-time role at the club to move back to South Africa.
He took the club within 30 seconds of their first English title last May and now leaves them in third place in the Premiership, almost certain to claim a place in the first Aviva Premiership semi-finals.
Venter has certainly been entertaining – there has never been a dull moment when the South African is around. A man you can’t gag and why would you want to. Rugby rulers have been far too prudish with Venter over his comments. Let the man speak and top flight referees should be big enough and ugly enough to take some criticism! And until referees are prepared to attend post-match media conferences (they refuse, in England, at the moment to defend or explain their decisions to the media, and therefore the public) they have nothing to complain about. Rugby needs more Brendan Venters not less. We suffer from the media coverage devoted to football so to keep rugby in the media we need all the characters we can get. And Venter is certainly a character!
His final game was a little on the dour side but it was fantastic to see more and more young Englishmen moving into the Saracens first team. Farrell, of course, and guys like Jamie George.
Venter said after the game: “The problem at Saracens was too much chopping and changing. We have a five-year plan in place, and it is ongoing. I may no longer be rugby director, but I’ll be in telephone contact regularly, and I will be flying back to England regularly to attend games. We have academy players pressing for each position in the team, so it’s not about bringing in some big-name stars, it’s now about the development of the team from within.
“As I expected of my former club, this was a tough game. Irish are a good side, very organised, and they never lose badly, it’s always just by a few points. But if you look at our fly-half, Owen Farrell, he is going to be special, and that really excites me. We lost a top international fly-half when Derick Hougaard was injured out of the season, and along came a teenager of this quality, a very talented boy who is learning to be a Premiership fly-half.”
If I could have one more wish in 2011 it would be to award London Irish a victory. Toby Booth is a decent man and more importantly a good coach so to see him go through 10 games without a win is not easy. But it does remind the rest of the Premiership that it is the sort of thing that can happen to anyone.
A week ago they came within an Olly Barkley penalty of breaking that run and at Saracens it was only Owen Farrell’s boot that kept them from winning. Their stunning form in the early part of the season, when they led the table means they are still just three points from a place in the top four and the play-offs. So they are very capable of turning this around.
I think they have been the victims of a Heineken Cup pool that the All Blacks would not relish. You would despair if you drew any of the Ospreys, Munster and Toulon. But to get all three in your pool – well that’s closing in on plain ridiculous. And with the salary cap as it is English clubs just can’t have as big a squad as they need to compete in a pool like that.
Luckily this isn’t football so Booth’s neck is NOT on the line. After the game he summed things up nicely when he said: “We simply have to keep on track, keep doing the right things. If you look at the statistics from this game for both teams, the error count, the missed penalties, the turnovers, all virtually the same. That means that games as tight as this turn on little breaks.
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“But teams like Toulouse, Munster, Leinster and Stade Francais don’t change the way they play, and nor will we. We play with ball in hand, and that will inevitably lead to errors. We face Ospreys in the Heineken Cup next weekend. If we don’t field the right team, we’ll get thrashed. But we do need to get momentum to get back up on the horse and remain positive.”
And so say all of us!