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FEATURE Henco Venter: 'We are going to war every week; it's not a place for soft men'

Henco Venter: 'We are going to war every week; it's not a place for soft men'
1 month ago

An hour’s chat with Henco Venter veers off in many unexpected directions. We lurch from farming in the Free State to the flanker’s penchant for US politics and his podcasts of choice; his love of the land and what it provides, to his late world champion uncle and his kindred-spirit relationship with Glasgow supremo, Franco Smith.

Venter is easy company; forthright but humble; opinionated but authentic. A family man who has bought into what the Warriors represent. Much of this stems from his upbringing. The 32-year-old was raised by two teachers who bought a plot of Free State land and still raise sheep on it. The farm, around 140km south of Bloemfontein, is like a magnet to Venter. Even more so since he and wife Lurinda welcomed their first child, Lana, in early February.

Henco Venter has been a hit with the Glasgow Warriors supporters since arriving at Scotstoun this season (Photo by Ross MacDonald/SNS Group/Glasgow Warriors)

“There’s definitely a thing with rugby and farmers,” he says. “In the olden days before gym, farming helped massively, working with sheep, picking them up, manual labour. There’s grass everywhere so your space is not limited. I love the farm, it’s a massive treat to go back and go fishing and hunting.

“Growing up there, we had a lot of guns and I enjoyed shooting them, reading up on them – it’s a science on its own. A lot of South African guys like hunting and using the meat, not killing stuff for no reason but going through the hard work of stalking it, preparing it, making your own steaks and boerewors and biltong. It’s part of your everyday on the farm.”

The place was steeped in rugby too. The game is deeply embedded in the culture of the region and in Venter’s family itself. His uncle, Ruben Kruger, was a bruising flanker in South Africa’s iconic 1995 champion vintage; a group of men who changed not merely their sport but their country. Kruger was named South African player of the year that season. Tragically, he died from brain cancer in 2010 two months before his 40th birthday.

When we played the Ospreys and they gave tickets away, not even half the stadium was full. It’s just because nobody knows the Ospreys.

“When I was in grade six I had my boots stolen,” Venter remembers. “My dad said, ‘I just bought you new ones, you have to look after your stuff’. I called my uncle and he sent me new World Cup boots. I still have World Cup 1995 balls he signed for all of us, jerseys and memorabilia.

“I remember watching his games for the Blue Bulls and the Springboks with my parents and grandparents. I was the only Blue Bulls supporter in the Free State! We used to have a place on the farm you could put up a flag, and if the Bulls won on the weekend, we would put the flag up so everyone who drove past would see it.

“When the Cheetahs or Free State play the Bulls everyone in Bloemfontein talks the whole time. When we played the Ospreys and they gave tickets away, not even half the stadium was full. It’s just because nobody knows the Ospreys. In their workplaces and lives, this guy is a Bull and that guy is a Cheetah, so they get at each other. Nobody is an Osprey.”

There’s a first glimpse of Venter’s outlook, underpinned by natural inquisitiveness. Recently, the great mud-slinging pantomime which precedes a US presidential election has captured his interest.

“Not that I like CNN and all those networks, but I still listen to them. I also listen to Fox News, and people like Tucker Carlson. When you listen to all of them, you can make your own narrative. You know some people are just talking to get views, trying to sell the sensation.

Venter began his professional career with the Cheetahs, his local franchise (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

“As you get older, you change your mind a lot. You read more about stuff to get the real narrative. I find it very interesting. You must be open-minded; don’t go into the slur of the world, where the world wants to take you.

“I listen to Jordan Peterson and Joe Rogan – his podcasts are next level. Russell Brand is interesting. He challenges some of the truths we believe, stuff I’ve never thought in my life. For instance, he was a drug addict and has certain viewpoints on drugs. Where I’m from drugs are not a problem because they are never there. I’m not saying he is right, but his viewpoint is interesting – before you die on your hill, keep quiet and listen to more people and you will probably learn more.”

Though Venter was never earmarked for greatness as a child, he always believed he would earn a living from the game. He boarded at Grey College Bloemfontein, the prestigious Springbok nursery, from the age of nine. Uncle Ruben was part of a glittering alumni.

The Free State has modest resources compared to South Africa’s big four now adorning the URC, smoothing the path for local kids to blossom. Venter climbed the ranks and studied at the nearby university. But moving from a schoolboy juggernaut team to a provincial minnow taught harrowing lessons. Then along came Franco Smith with an eye-opening approach.

“In high school we won every time, it was just a matter of by how many points, 40, 50 or 60. I went to junior rugby and learned how to lose. The Free State was an easier place to make it to professional level because a lot of players go to the Bulls, Lions, Sharks and Stormers, so there’s this massive pool and when you’re young and you get an injury you don’t really get a chance.

We can’t try to be nice to each other if we want to win a final – definitely within the right structure.

“When Franco came in as backline coach I was 23 and I just wanted to play. I thought: here is something. He coached us in the Varsity Cup and we won it without losing a game. The next year we won the Currie Cup. He changed the Free State mindset, how you play running rugby and keep ball in hand. It was fun. With Franco, the finals I played in, we never lost.”

Venter melded his final years at the Cheetahs with two seasons in Japan, playing for Toshiba Brave Lupus, then another three with the Sharks before Smith brought him to Scotland last summer. In his debut season, Venter has been one of the most influential Warriors – rugged, abrasive, consistent. He was nominated for the club’s player of the season award this week.

Smith and Venter share a background and many values. The coach appears stoic and guarded, yet wept in his press conference after leading the Cheetahs to another Currie Cup. Both have a burning love of the Free State and a deep Christian faith. Neither has a problem calling a spade a spade.

“Franco is one of the cleverest coaches out there. He is one of the big reasons I am in Glasgow. Look at the guys who are performing for Glasgow now, two years ago where were they? Guys who were performing two years ago are even better now.

“He knows what the team needs and how to get it. As a player you need a coach to tell you that you are not good enough. That doesn’t always mean you need to like it, as long as it makes you better. He is not shy in telling everyone what is best and how to be the best – and to be the best you have to be pushed.

“We are going to war every week. It is not a place for soft men to sit and worry about their emotions. We have 40 minutes, if it’s half-time and we’re not performing. We can’t try to be nice to each other if we want to win a final – definitely within the right structure.

“He won’t look down at a guy but he will tell you. Every time, the guys play better. Everyone wants that brutal honesty from a coach. If coaches don’t push players, players know it and complacency slips in. You will never win a competition.”

Glasgow battled back from 37-10 down to score three quickfire tries and take two losing bonus points from Loftus Versfeld on Saturday (Photo by Lee Warren/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

A shot at silverware glistens on the horizon. In Smith’s hugely impressive first year in charge, Glasgow swaggered to the Challenge Cup final and wilted, smoked by a Toulon team laden with big-game players. Munster beat them at Scotstoun in the URC quarters after an early red card to Tom Jordan. How this team longs for the tangible reward at the end of another fine campaign.

A stirring comeback in the asphyxiating surrounds of Loftus Versfeld earned two bonus points in defeat and kept them top of the overall standings on Saturday. Glasgow go to the Lions this weekend knowing victory could effectively seal their place at the summit, with only toiling Zebre Parma to surmount, at home, in the final round of fixtures. A Scotstoun quarter is all but safe; the carrot of home advantage in a semi and final is a mouth-watering reward should the Warriors keep winning.

“Franco starts planning for the final at the start of the season,” Venter goes on. “He keeps the dream and vision alive. That’s something I haven’t seen with other coaches. You want to peak at that point of the season. You don’t win a final in the week of the final, revving guys up.

“The next two games are critical for us. If we want to win this competition, we need to own it. This is the part we’ve been training for the whole year. Everything must come alive now. The buzz is here. The way we fought back against Bulls. We are there, we must execute it.”


Rolando 36 days ago

Fox News, Tucker Carlson, Jordan Peterson and Joe Rogan? Yikes.

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