Monday 25 March 2019

O'Shea medicine can eventually heal ailing Azzurri, insists Venter

South Africa World Cup winner and renowned coach can already see Irishman's work reaping rewards in Italy despite Six Nations blank

South African World Cup winner Brendan Venter worked as Conor O’Shea’s defence coach in Italy. Photo: Getty
South African World Cup winner Brendan Venter worked as Conor O’Shea’s defence coach in Italy. Photo: Getty
David Kelly

David Kelly

He's the doctor who is always on call.

The cure often involves a "pill" but Dr Brendan Venter has always believed - in life, as in sport - that to begin any treatment, there must first be a diagnosis.

The afflicted cannot become well without first getting better; there cannot be results without performances. Follow the process. Take the medicine.

Venter remembers the time when he first visited his old friend Conor O'Shea in Parma a few years back.

"Italian rugby was so far behind when Conor took over because there were no systems in place," says the 1995 World Cup winner with South Africa.

"I always used to say to him why are you expecting a different result? Your two professional teams are lost. If you consider how poor Zebre and Treviso were, the only way they get any points was when they played each other.

"When I was there, it was unbelievably average. They weren't competitive, they tried hard, they are passionate people but their skill-sets and decision-making were vastly inferior to other nations.

"They were used to losing, at all levels. Now I know they are still losing at international level but it is changing underneath and Conor's side are definitely a better team than when I was there. The difficulty is others are also improving.

"But they are already reaping the fruits of what happened in terms of their re-structuring. Italian rugby is growing.

"The reason I see hope for Italian rugby is the fact that both club teams are a lot more competitive now. Treviso in fact are a proper team. You get a proper game against them.

Read more: Long road to the international stage pays off for resilient Cooney

"It's only a question of time for me, genuinely, that the club results will be transferred into the international arena. They were once lost but Conor has helped them find a way out."

Venter will not be there to see any eventual rewards; he was expected to remain as a consultant until the Rugby World Cup but, as he has so often demonstrated in a strong-willed and varied coaching career, the pull of his primary healing profession tugged him homewards.

Saracens, most notably, have evolved under his tutelage in recent times; Wayne Smith has replaced him as a "consultant" with Italy but Venter's influence was notable, no more so than with the infamous "no ruck" ploy that bamboozled Eddie Jones' England two years ago.

"Unlike French rugby, there aren't a huge amount of foreigners playing for these clubs so they have all developed together, through the underage teams and with the clubs.

"So Italians are playing week in, week out for Italian sides and they have demonstrated they can beat the Welsh, Scottish and Irish teams. Belief is growing perhaps faster than results.

"But they are already reaping the fruits of what happened in terms of their re-structuring. Italian rugby is getting stronger because the right medicine is being applied."

Culture is all-important to Venter. It's what he initiated at Saracens, another institution who relied too much on quick fixes rather than long-term development. Husbanding a tight coaching group and a coherent playing style with clever recruitment, the listless outfit were transformed into a world leader; while there, he offered a certain Andy Farrell his first coaching gig, along with current head coach, Ulster man Mark McCall.

"I did give him his first coaching job," says Venter of the incoming Irish head coach, a rugby league playing legend who transformed himself into one of the brightest coaching minds in Union.

"He was a player when I was at Saracens. He was part of a good management team with Paul Gustard, Alex Sanderson, Mark McCall.

"He's a really good coach and he will be successful. He won't always get everything right, not everybody does. But he will always be successful.

"You know where you stand with him. His yes is his yes and his no is his no. To play rugby league and rugby union for England, you obviously know the game.

"But ultimately he's a straightforward straight shooter. He has no shenanigans going on and there are few of those around now. There's always an agenda with some coaches. But it's so easy to work with him because it is never complex. And it's the same with Joe Schmidt which is why they work so well together."

Farrell's respect for his old mentor is obvious too.

"He's so driven. He knows exactly what he wants and he's so passionate as well.

"You get coaches that talk passion, leadership and honesty but it comes naturally to Brendan.

"The enthusiasm is there for everybody to see. He loves what he is doing and you can see that a mile away."

His personal loyalties may be divided this week, then but his surgical professional eye can envision just one outcome.

"Ireland, so well-coached, are direct and relentless," he says. "If Conor's team copes with that, they have a chance. If they don't, they will be 'whupped'."

Irish Independent

The Left Wing: Why Irish fans shouldn't lose faith and how Joe Schmidt can turn things around for the World Cup

In association with Aldi

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport