In an exclusive interview, former Springbok AJ VENTER talks about his tenuous relationship with Jake White, suffering a nervous breakdown post-rugby and whether he was the one who gave Piet van Zyl a bloodied nose.
Sport24 asked: Is this pandemic the biggest challenge rugby has ever seen?
AJ Venter: I see a report has indicated that the Covid-19 pandemic could cost SA Rugby between R27 million and R33 million a month if the current lockdown restrictions are not lifted by the end of May. Those are crazy numbers and that is absolutely out there. It’s a lot of dough but in business in general how much money is being lost? It’s a crazy time in the world and, if you don’t know what’s to come, our natural instinct as humans is to become anxious and contract. With the Super Rugby season indefinitely suspended, it’s a difficult time for the players. As a professional sportsman, for six days of the week you are balls to the wall in terms of training and exercising and now all of a sudden you are confined to your property. Players enjoy having a structure in place and now suddenly the players have to be self-sufficient. Like always there will be players who will thrive in said situation and a few guys who will struggle. There is no doubt that there are going to be some guys who will look back and say they missed the structure of being involved with the team all the time. It must be really challenging to stay fit and the question is: Whenever the season returns how fit are the players going to be and how soon are they going to find the form they need to compete at a high level? If Super Rugby does return post-lockdown a domestic competition would make sense because it would cut down on travel time and costs.
Sport24 asked: Why did you decide to call time on your Test career in 2006?
AJ Venter: I kind of got the message at the time that I was not going to be in the 2007 World Cup squad. If I could have changed one thing in my life it would have been to have played for South Africa at the showpiece event (Venter played 25 Tests for the Springboks of which he started 20 matches). To be honest, Jake White didn’t really dig me at all. There was always like a funny vibe (between us). I was a player at the time so had massive respect for the guy but I quickly realised that it wasn’t mutual. It is what it is. If I saw Jake right now I will say “hello” to him but at the time I didn’t think he was too happy with me... I feel Jake has an interesting way of handling players. I always got the feeling that Jake had a handful of players that were his favourites. They were the leaders in the team and the rest of the guys were peripheral. At the time, I was one of the players on the periphery. That can be a great way of leading and attaining success but it also comes at the risk of most of the team not really having a relationship with the coach. In contrast, Dick Muir and Rassie Erasmus, whom I worked with, are great player-coaches. They understand there are not only five players in a team but 40... In terms of Jake’s Bulls appointment, I’m really happy for him and it is obviously a fantastic opportunity to coach in Super Rugby. I think Jake will do well at the Bulls because Afrikaans players generally thrive under some discipline. It may be a bit different in Cape Town or Durban but Jake’s style might actually suit the Bulls.
Sport24 asked: What have you made of Rassie’s development as a coach?
AJ Venter: Rassie is amazing. I played with Rassie when we started together as players at the Cheetahs and then I ended off my last season at the Stormers with him as my coach. I learned a helluva lot from him owing to his people skills. He boasts an absolute rugby brain but apart from that he has a real skill in relating to the players. It’s one thing understanding the game and being a good tactical and technical coach but I have experienced those who don’t know how to relate to players. As a player, you need someone who is like a father figure to look up to. In my opinion, that is what makes Rassie a really good coach. He is a great analytical coach but is also a person who can relate to the players and be at their level… Rassie has appointed Jacques Nienaber as Springbok head coach and has returned to his director of rugby role at SARU. When I was playing at the Free State, Jacques was the physiotherapist so I have known him for 20 years. There is no one with more heart and commitment than him. The hours he puts in is just phenomenal and he will have absolute commitment to his team and South Africa for that matter. I’m not exactly sure how far removed Rassie is going to be from the whole coaching dynamic but I think he will still be closely involved with everything. However, I have absolute faith in Jacques to take the project forward. (Nienaber has also been backed by Eben Etzebeth). It’s true that it’s quite a big step up for Jacques, having never previously been a head coach but I don’t think Rassie would have made this decision without much thought. He knows and is comfortable that Jacques will do the job well. However, Rassie is also aware he’ll always only be an arm’s length away from the team situation.
Sport24 asked: Have you been impressed with the table-topping Sharks?
AJ Venter: Yes, absolutely I have been impressed with the franchise I played for 10 years. Head coach Sean Everitt has really come through the ranks. The other day I spoke to someone who is closely involved at the Sharks and they were saying how the players really respect Sean. The coach has to be respected but he has also got to be able to communicate at the players’ level. From my understanding, Sean is getting that right... I am so impressed with the young players that the Sharks now have in their arsenal. There is some incredible pace, speed and skill in that team. It’s exciting to watch when those guys start running at the back and it really looks good. Sharks skipper Lukhanyo Am is being spoken of as a future Springbok captain but it’s hard for me to judge the person that he is as I don’t know him. We have only interacted briefly so I can only rate him on his on-field performances. It’s obvious that he has incredible skill and pace but, what has really impressed me is that although he has those backline attributes, he is one the best stealers in the game from a centre position, which is really impressive. It highlights he possesses the skill, speed and pace but also heart which is important.
Sport24 asked: What do you admire most about Pieter-Steph du Toit?
AJ Venter: Let’s be honest – he’s an absolute legend. For me, he is one of South Africa’s best players and will be for quite some time to come. Unlike Pieter-Steph, I started my career at flank and converted to lock. In terms of making a successful adjustment between those positions it literally comes down to skill and speed. Pieter-Steph is a very skilled player so he was able to adapt quite quickly. I enjoyed transitioning between the roles and I’m sure Pieter-Steph doesn’t mind at all. He is one of those guys who just wants to be involved and help the team. The fact that Pieter-Steph could have had his leg amputated is crazy… I was counting the other day and I worked out that I had 16 operations during my career. My most severe were three major knee operations which put me out of the game for eight months each time. Injuries are part of the game because rugby is gladiatorial but I honestly don’t know if I would want my boy to play because it’s such a physical game.
Sport24 asked: What was the strangest on-field incident you experienced?
AJ Venter: What a pity that when people think about me they recall the Piet van Zyl incident against the All Blacks in 2002 but it’s part of my past. I remember that particular scrum like it was yesterday. I was playing lock and obviously scrumming on tighthead I always scrummed right. I was looking right at the scrumhalf and where the ball would be fed and the next minute I saw a guy in blue jeans and vellies. I immediately realised that there was an intruder on the field. Somehow I came out of the scrum at the same time as Richie McCaw and if I was normally that fast in the game I would have probably stolen more ball! Between myself and Richie, we gave him a few slaps to make sure he didn’t do that again. Richie said it wasn’t him that gave Van Zyl a bloodied nose so it must have been me! From what I have seen since of the incident, Van Zyl’s tackle could not have done anything to referee Dave McHugh. Chris Jack has said that when he and Dave Hewitt tried to pull McHugh up from the fracas they must have inadvertently dislocated his shoulder. That theory actually makes sense to me because Van Zyl couldn’t have done any serious damage with that poorly-attempted tackle of his.
Sport24 asked: Tell us about the difficulties you encountered after retiring.
AJ Venter: A few years after rugby, I suffered from anxiety and depression and actually ended up having a nervous breakdown at one stage. There are many reasons for it and the key is to identify the issues and fix them if you can. If you allow it to, anxiety and fear can cloud everything and you start to neglect the small things you should be grateful for in life. It was obviously a really tough time for me but I came out of it successfully and didn’t make use of any medicine. With hard work and surrounding myself with the right people I got through that difficult patch fabulously. I don’t want that tough time over again but I look back at it now with absolute gratitude purely because in times of hardship that is when we grow as humans. When everything is hunky dory we tend to stagnate but when we are really under pressure and stress, we dig deep and show that we are resilient. I came out the other side as a much better man and everything improved in my life. Venter now has his own podcast - Life with AJ Venter - where he speaks to people from different spheres.