IT takes a grand total of just five seconds in the company of Henco Venter for it to become crystal clear why Glasgow Warriors head coach Franco Smith was so keen to bring the back-rower to Scotstoun at the earliest opportunity. Both men are god-fearing South Africans with a no-nonsense approach to rugby built on the premise that what you get out of life and sport correlates directly to what you put in.
Asked if he had spoken to Smith before deciding to make the move from Bloemfontein in the Free State of South Africa to the west coast of Scotland, Venter replies with a disarmingly polite nod and smile.
“Oh yes, I knew him before personally,” explains the 31-year-old nephew of 1995 World Cup winner Ruben Kruger. “He was definitely a big reason [in signing]. I knew when he came here he was going to make a difference. As the team grew and grew through last year a lot of people wanted to be a part of it: they could see something special was happening.”
“I definitely wanted to come when I saw he was coaching the team. I’ve just always believed in what he does, and when he called I thought: ‘Let’s go! This is good news’. I never thought I’d be in Glasgow, to be honest, but I must say I’ve enjoyed everything and I’m very keen to be here and to give back to the club. I think we can win finals.”
The two men’s paths initially crossed around a decade ago when Smith returned home from his first stint coaching in Italy with Benetton Treviso and took up a role as head coach of the Shimlas team, representing the University of Free State, where Venter was a theology student and key member of the squad which won the Varsity Cup in 2015. Their relationship carried on at Currie Cup and Super Rugby level with the Cheetahs for the next four years, before a parting of the ways in 2019 when the player took up an opportunity to spend a season in Japan with Toshiba Brave Lupus and the coach moved back to Europe to take charge of the Italian national team.
“I think just the way he thinks about the game, and as a person,” replies Venter – who is currently completing an MBA at North-West University based in Potchefstroom – when asked to articulate what it is about Smith that he particularly relates to.
“We are basically going to war every weekend, so you need someone who will tell you to keep your back straight. Some people don’t like it, but I feel it’s necessary in rugby to have someone to tell you because otherwise complacency gets in the way.
“It doesn’t help if we are a bunch of sheep who go in any direction. We need to go somewhere, and to do that you need someone to tell you what to do and how to get there. And I think his way of communication as a coach is very good, to make you believe from the first day.”
The jury remains out on whether the recruitment by one of the country’s two pro teams of a veteran non-Scots qualified back-rower with a solid rather than a spectacular pedigree ahead of promising youngsters such as Rhys Tait, Rudi Brown and Archie Smeaton is a luxury the game in this country can afford at the moment.
Certainly, there is a balance to be struck, and it doesn’t help that there is no discernible strategy on this matter to provide reassurance that long-term goals rather than short-term expediency is a consideration for pro team head coaches who live or die by results in the here and now.
Not that this is a matter which should unduly concern Venter, who has been brought in to do a job for Warriors. He believes his shared history with Smith can help him be a leader on the pitch – call it the Callum Gibbins/Dave Rennie effect – although in this instance there is already a fair bit of cohesion between squad and coach after last year’s run to the Challenge Cup Final and URC play-offs.
“Franco’s communication is very good, so every player will know exactly what to do and when to do it,” stresses Venter. “There’s no time to think, basically, in the way he coaches: you must just make a decision and go. You don’t have to overthink stuff, because that takes time, and we don’t have time. There’s no time for regrets: you must just go with it.
“It feels like I’ve come back to the Free State with all the guys knowing exactly what to do. It’s so easy just to get in and be part of the team, because it feels like it’s an old team that I’ve played in because Franco coached me. A lot of the stuff is exactly the same as we did then.
“So, for me, it’s been one of the easiest transitions I’ve ever had. And Glasgow is just next level … all the equipment and all the people, [that] just made it so easy.”
Alongside his painstaking respectfulness there is an equal measure of self-assuredness, which reveals itself in his immediate retort when asked what his goals are for this season.
“I think it is to win the competition [URC],” Venter states. “The Stormers are the only South African team to have won it, and a few other South African guys who maybe played for Leinster or Munster … So, it’s past the point of just competing.
“With Glasgow being in the [Challenge Cup] Final last year, that gave a bit of a taste for everyone. And I think that will prepare the guys better for this year. Nothing will be new for us.
“We know how to get there. We got there, we didn’t win it, so now we must just get that last hurdle. I think it’s going to be an interesting year.
“We have a good squad, with some of the juniors. I think the club is in a good place. You need a lot of players to win both competitions and we have that, so I must say I’m keen for everything – I’m very excited.”
- Glasgow kick-off their URC campaign at home to Leinster on Sunday at 4pm.