x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Jan Venter to take Exiles back to basics

The South African is reshaping the club after the turbulent end to last season. Paul Radley hears the three-year vision planned for Dubai's oldest rugby club.

Jan Venter, the Dubai Exiles coach, takes a training session at the Sevens rugby ground in Dubai.
Jan Venter, the Dubai Exiles coach, takes a training session at the Sevens rugby ground in Dubai.

DUBAI // Jan Venter, the new head coach of Dubai's oldest rugby club, is in animated discussion about the sport he loves when he airs a theory of how to create a perfectly functioning defensive line.

"If you don't have the basics everything becomes – as we say in Afrikaans – gemors," says the South African head coach of Dubai Exiles.

The Afrikaans word for "a mess" could aptly describe the team he inherited at the start of this summer.

With the Exiles still struggling to adapt to life as tenants, four years after moving out of their old home ground in Al Awir, last season represented a low point in the history of the city's most-storied club.

By the end of it, their first team had been withdrawn from domestic competition three weeks prematurely.

With unspecified "star" players apparently playing truant from training and matches, life was tough.

The basic tenets of being an amateur rugby club, it seems, had temporarily gone awry.

Since then, the club have opted to enter just one side into local competition, dispensed with the director of rugby position and empowered Venter to reshape the club as head coach.

There can be few better people around to right the ship. And as the affable coach says, the slate is clean for everyone now.

"I have a philosophy," says Venter, who will oversee his first UAE Premiership match on Friday when the Exiles play Dubai Wasps on the opening day of the new campaign.

"We are an amateur rugby club. The reason these guys play rugby is not because they get paid.

"The reason we are involved in rugby is because we love rugby. I am of the attitude that if you serve the game and put rugby first, then the game will give back."

The availability crisis which often happens at the end of a rugby season - and it is by no means exclusively an Exiles affliction - is an odd one to fathom out.

Sure, some players have a change of circumstances in their work places, or get injured. And others lose motivation when their team are out of the running for medals.

But at the end of the day, do players not participate in the first place just because it means having a game of rugby on a Friday afternoon? Is the opportunity to play sport not the whole point of it all?

"I do it because I love rugby," Venter said. "I want to surround myself with players who want to play rugby and who love the game.

"And not necessarily the stars. If we have the stars, then great stuff. If they are guys who are fresh to the game, we will teach them how to play it.

"My priority is to get guys who want to play the game. By serving the game, they will serve the team and enjoy it.

"If guys are enjoying training and playing, then the wins will come."

Venter has a three year vision for the Exiles. Season one requires consolidation, with a top four finish in the UAE Premiership - and thus qualification for the Gulf Top Six - a must.

By next season he hopes player numbers will have swelled enough to enter a second team into domestic competition.

By the third season, he wants his side to be competing for trophies again. "I am not a bad loser, but I do love to win," the coach says.

Another - unrelated - Venter is the club's new first XV captain. Gareth Venter, 38, has taken a roundabout route to get to his current office within the Exiles.

With his sons enrolled in the club's thriving mini and youth section, he initially had a run out in the Exiles' veterans side.

From there, the lock forward graduated to the second team, then the firsts, and is now the captain of the side.

It is the opposite route to the one most players usually take, but it means he has a keen grasp of the machinations of the club at every level beyond the first team.

The club's chairman, Mike Wolff, is from a mini and youth background. Jan Venter, is the same.

He even coached one young player - his own son Stephan - through the ranks to the point where he is now at the feeder academy for the Stormers Super rugby franchise back in South Africa.

Captain Gareth hopes to bridge the gap between age-group and senior men's rugby so the Exiles first team can benefit from the strength of their youth set-up.

"If you see Super 15 rugby, Currie Cup rugby, you see a lot of under 21 players playing in those competitions," said the captain.

"Why should the UAE be any different? There is no reason they can't be standout players in men's rugby."


UAE Premiership season starts Friday

Dubai Hurricanes v Abu Dhabi Saracens

Abu Dhabi Harlequins v Jebel Ali Dragons

Dubai Wasps v Dubai Exiles