Sharks man has a vision
Venter aims to transform off-field culture, environment to boost players
IF THEIR new boss Brendan Venter gets it right, the Sharks players who gather today for a training camp at the start of the build-up to the new Currie Cup season can ready themselves for a time in their lives when they will undergo massive personal growth.
Many Sharks fans are understandably, and probably rightly, disappointed and frustrated at the way the long-serving John Plumtree was dismissed. It wasn’t handled well and after what he had done for the union Plumtree certainly deserved to be treated better than he was.
But in speaking to the Sharks’ new director of rugby this week, it did become much clearer what the union’s newly appointed chief executive John Smit is looking for in making the switch.
It may be over-simplifying it, but the former Springbok centre appears to subscribe to a similar new age coaching philosophy to that of recently retired Proteas cricket coach Gary Kirsten and his righthand man Paddy Upton.
That pair attributed their success with India to the environment they had helped create through their attention to the people who made up the team, and from the first day they made it clear that they were going to do the same thing with the South Africans.
As the Proteas ascended to the No 1 ranking in Test cricket during the time of their involvement, their mission can be taken to have been successful.
Venter has been hired by Smit on the basis of what he did to transform the culture and environment at English club Saracens, where the Springbok World Cup-winning captain completed his playing career, and where he says he learned more in two years than in 10 years in South Africa.
In an interview with Venter this week, the conversation seldom focused on onfield rugby issues, and instead centred on the qualities of people and the need for players to be defined by more than just what they do on the field in order to be successful. When it comes to the rugby stuff, he doesn’t think there’s much wrong with the Sharks, or for that matter much to fault his predecessor for.
“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,” said Venter.
“It’s not just about trophies, although those are obviously important, and they will come if you create an environment that is special.
“I’ve been through the stats for this past Super Rugby season and there is nothing that really jumps out at you. The Sharks conceded the third least tries in the competition, and also scored the third most tries.
“My primary focus is to change the culture and try and bring that specialness to the Sharks that John (Smit) is looking for.”
Venter shares his time between coaching and his life as a medical doctor. While he is much sought after for his coaching expertise, he says that he won’t 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.
“For me it is all about creating an environment where people can express themselves in and perform in. 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.
“A lot revolves around integrity. You should never sacrifice your integrity in order to win a game, and 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.”
Venter has been burned in the past when doing interviews, so he won’t be seeking the spotlight at the Sharks, with Smit and new coach Brad McLeod-Henderson being the front men while he works in the background.
“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.”
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.”
Venter has filled the position of the technical director at Saracens for the past few years while also running his medical practice in the Strand – and he will continue to do so.
“Technological advances have made just about anything possible. Each Saracens 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.
“I watch every game and analyse what we do and fly to the UK once every month to talk to the coaches.
“I will continue to work with Saracens, but I will be very hands-on at the Sharks during the Currie Cup. It’s going to be really hectic and busy for me.
“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 onfield 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 won’t be a top team of 15 as such. It is my 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 work-load divided than have the same team play 40 games in a row.”
LOOKING AHEAD: Brendan Venter believes creating the right off-field atmosphere can help transform the Sharks into a winning team again.