‘We are going to war every week; it’s not a place for soft men’

An hour-long conversation with Henco Venter veers in many unexpected directions. We move from Free State farming to the winger's penchant for American politics and his podcast of choice; His love for the land and what it has to offer, for his late world champion uncle and his spiritual connection with the Chairman of Glasgow, Franco Smith.

Venter is an easy company. Honest but humble. Stubborn but authentic. A family man who bought into what the Warriors represented. A lot of this stems from his upbringing. The 32-year-old was raised by teachers who bought a piece of Free State land on which they still raise sheep. The farm, located about 140 kilometers south of Bloemfontein, is a magnet for Venter. Even more so since he and his wife, Lorinda, welcomed their first child, Lana, in early February.

Henco Venter has been a huge hit with Glasgow Warriors supporters since arriving at Scotstoun this season (Photo by Ross McDonald/SNS Collection/Glasgow Warriors)

“There's definitely something about rugby and farmers,” he says. “In the old days before the gym, farming helped a lot, working with the sheep, gathering them, manual labor. There is grass everywhere so your space is not limited. I love the farm, it is great fun to come back and go fishing and hunting.

“Growing up there, we had a lot of guns and I enjoyed shooting them, reading about them – it's a science in itself. A lot of South African men like to hunt and use the meat, and they don't kill things for no reason, they do the hard work of hunting them down, preparing them, making “Steaks, puree and biltong are part of your daily life on the farm.”

The place was awash in rugby too. The game is deeply rooted in the culture of the region and in the Venter family itself. His uncle, Robin Kruger, was one of South Africa's famous players in the 1995 tournament; A group of men who not only changed their sport, they changed their country. Kruger was named South Africa's Player of the Year for the season. Tragically, he died of brain cancer in 2010, two months before his 40th birthdayy birthday.

When we played the Ospreys and they gave out tickets, the stadium wasn't even half full. It's only because no one knows the Ospreys.

“When I was in sixth grade, my shoes were stolen,” Venter recalls. “My father said, ‘I just bought you new things, you need to take care of your things.’” I called my uncle and he sent me new shoes for the World Cup. I still have the 1995 World Cup balls he signed for all of us, the shirts and the memorabilia.

“I remember watching his Blue Bulls and Springboks matches 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 where you could raise the flag, and if the Bulls won on the weekend, we would raise Science so that everyone who passes by us can see it.

“When the Panthers or Free State play the Bulls, everyone in Bloemfontein talks all the time. When we played the Ospreys and they handed out tickets, the stadium wasn't even half full. That's just because no one knows the Ospreys. In their workplaces and their lives, that's The guy is a bull and this guy is a cheetah, so they clash with each other and no one is an osprey.

There is a first glimpse of Venter's outlook, fueled by a natural curiosity. Recently, the great pantomime leading up to the US presidential election has captured his attention.

“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 create your own story. You know some people just talk to get points of view And they are trying to sell the feeling.

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

“As you get older, your opinion changes a lot. You read more about things to get the true narrative. I find it very exciting. You have to be open-minded; don't go to the slanders of the world, where the world wants to take you.”

“I listen to Jordan Peterson and Joe Rogan – his podcast is next level. Russell Brand is interesting. He challenges some of the truths we believe in, things I've never thought about in my life. For example, he was a drug addict and had certain views on drugs.” Where I stand on drugs is not an issue because it's never there. I'm not saying he's right, but his point is interesting – before you die on your hill, stay calm and listen to more people, and maybe you'll learn more.

Although Venter was never destined for greatness as a child, he always believed he would make a living from the game. He attended Gray College Bloemfontein, the prestigious Springbok nursery, since he was nine years old. Uncle Robin was part of the brilliant alumni.

The Free State has modest resources compared to the big four South African nations that now adorn the URC, paving the way for local children to flourish. Venter rose through the ranks and studied at the nearby university. But the transition from juggernaut school team to regional minnows were harrowing lessons. Then Franco Smith came up with an eye-catching approach.

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

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

“When Franco came in as backline coach I was 23 and I just wanted to play. I thought: ‘Here’s something.’ We coached in the League Cup and won it without losing a game. The next year we won the Currie Cup. He changed the Free State mentality, how to play rugby and keep Ball in hand. It was fun with Franco, in the finals I played in, we never lost.

Venter combined his final years at the Panthers with two seasons in Japan, playing for the Toshiba Brave Lobos, and then three more with the Sharks before Smith brought him to Scotland last summer. In his first season, Venter was one of the most impactful Warriors – powerful, abrasive and consistent. He was nominated for the club's Player of the Year award this week.

Smith and Venter share a background and many values. The coach appears stoic and cautious, but he cried in his press conference after leading the Cheetahs to another Currie Cup. They both have an intense love of the free state and a deep Christian faith. Neither of them has a problem calling a spade a spade.

“Franco is one of the smartest coaches out there. He's one of the big reasons I'm in Glasgow. Look at the guys performing in Glasgow now, two years ago, where were they? The guys who were performing two years ago are 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. This does not always mean that you need to like him, as long as he makes you better. He is not shy about telling everyone what is best and how to be the best.” -And to be the best you have to be pushed.

“We're going to war every week. It's not a place where soft guys 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 the final – Certainly within the correct structure.

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

Glasgow fought back from 37 to 10 down to score three quick tries and earn two extra points from Loftus Versfeld on Saturday (Photo by Lee Warren/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

A shot of silverware sparkling on the horizon. In Smith's impressive first year in charge, Glasgow reached the Challenge Cup final and were wilted, smoked by a Toulon side packed with senior players. Munster beat them in Scotstoun at URC headquarters after an early red card for Tom Jordan. How this team longs for the tangible reward at the end of another good season.

A dramatic comeback in the stifling surroundings of Loftus Versfeld earned two bonus points in defeat and kept them at the top of the overall standings on Saturday. Glasgow go to the Lions this weekend knowing that a win could virtually guarantee their place at the top, with Zebre Parma only struggling to beat home in the final round of fixtures. Scotstoun is quite safe; Home carrot advantage in the semifinals and final is a tasty bonus if the Warriors hold on to the win.

“Franco starts planning the final at the beginning of the season,” continues Venter. “He keeps the dream and the vision alive. That's something I haven't seen with other coaches. You want to peak at that stage of the season. You're not going to win a final on the week of a final, which brings the players up to speed.

“The next two games are crucial for us. If we want to win this competition, we have to own it. This is the part we have been training for all year. Everything has to come alive now. The buzz is here. The way we fought against the Bulls. We are there, We have to implement it.”


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