19 April 2022
Over the next week, we will take the Exile Nation back 20 years to the Club’s 2002 Powergen Cup triumph over Northampton Saints, which ended 38-7 at Twickenham Stadium.
We will be chatting to some of the key figures involved to commemorate the against-all-odds victory for Irish.
A World Cup winner with South Africa in 1995, Brendan Venter joined London Irish three years later and memorialized himself into Club history as the leading player/coach behind the 2002 Powergen Cup success.
As well as being a practicing doctor, Venter currently works in a consultancy role with United Rugby Championship side the Sharks alongside 2002 teammate and current High Performance Manager in Durban, Michael Horak.
In the 2001/02 season, Venter led the team on the pitch to their highest finish in the Premiership at the time (4th), a second-ever Challenge Cup semi-final as well as the Exiles’ first piece of silverware.
Heading into the Club’s first final since 1980, where Irish were then beaten by Leicester in the John Player Cup final, Venter believed it was ideal conditions for Irish heading into the match.
“We just had a really nice group and had played well up until that stage, and I don’t think we were under much pressure because our opponents were so overwhelmingly the favourites.
“They had a star-studded team with a really good coaching staff and nobody gave us a chance- it was the perfect situation to be in.
“We knew we were underdogs but it suited us as we were underdogs that whole season.
“I think it’s a bit of a London Irish thing, we don’t mind being underdogs and we can be at our best when we are underestimated.”
The lead up to the final included a match down the road at The Stoop, which had anything but ideal conditions, and where Barry Everitt’s kicking that afternoon against Harlequins was described as “absolutely absurd.”
Overcoming Quins thanks to two late Everitt goal kicks, Conor O’Shea’ team faced the offensive might of Northampton Saints, who had beaten Irish in 11 of the previous 18 league and cup encounters.
“At Irish, we won by fighting and not necessarily being the most glamorous team; Baz could kick the goals, the rest of us would tackle, and we got over the gain line.
“That was us, we were unashamedly proud of the way we did things and we always made it very difficult for teams- we did have one superstar in the team, and his name was Paul Sackey.
“He could do things that nobody else could do in England, we knew he was magical but the rest of us as a group were warriors, we were fighters.
“I remember one of the things we did in the build up was laying on the floor and doing visualisation meditation, because few of the players had played at that level.
“We lay down and talked through it so on the day when it happened it had almost been that the guys had been there already, it was such an enjoyable thing, because they never felt overwhelmed and we were actually looking forward to it!
“When we got there,the other team knew Twickenham, we didn’t even know where the changing rooms were!”
The dream day got off to the dream start; Justin Bishop, Michael Horak and Geoff Appleford each scoring in the opening forty on the occasion where “everything went our way.”
“We had some good plans and moves that worked out but we would never have dreamed of all our passes sticking and everything we touched turned to gold, it was just one of those days.
“We had opportunities and we scored, we had more opportunities and we scored again and they had opportunities but they couldn’t score and when they did, it was through one lucky cross-field kick for Ben Cohen, who was brilliant in the air.
“On the day we were unbelievable, Mikey Horak and Justin Bishop had played a blinder and so did Geoff Appleford, Chris Sheasby was just fantastic on the day too, even at the age of 50!
“With fifteen minutes to play, I decided I was coming off to give our young centre Rob Hoadley a taste of Twickenham, knowing we wouldn’t lose it and it was one of the best decisions I ever made as he was on the pitch when we won the cup and could enjoy it.
“I’ve had some great memories in rugby, but that memory of that day, that week and the excitement around it, I’m not sure anything comes close, and that includes being involved in a World Cup final, a Premiership final, and Currie Cup finals.
“That is why we love rugby so much, we work hard for great days like those for the Club.”
On how Irish got the upper hand in the match throughout, Venter divulged how his team prepared for the challenge of taking on former All Blacks coach Wayne Smith’s Saints, employing a famed ‘out-to-in’ defence.
“The circle always comes around again, because that is how the Springboks won the most recent World Cup, rushing up and going in,” the South African explained.
“We had two unique and fearless players in Bish and Sacks who were brilliant at this, it was very dependent on wings who could make good decisions which is why it worked so well at Irish, and bailed us out so many times.
“As the Head Coach and player, I said to the squad we would have to hunt players like Matt Dawson down because he was a good player for them but didn’t play well on the day.
“I gave him a swinging arm and looking back on it, it was so ludicrous I would have been banned for three months in the modern game.
“I felt so bad about it that I apologised to him but he told me in no uncertain terms where to go.
“Wayne Smith was always ahead of his time in coaching, and Northampton would latch early on the carrier and then would batter you over the line.
“I remember saying we should just go for their legs having analysed their ways of doing this and they had a go just before half-time and we kept them out, and I knew we had won it because their plan didn’t work.
“In the tunnel at half-time, him and Budge Pountney were having a go at each other and it was then that I knew they weren’t coming back from this and I knew we had them through their body language.”
Irish’s defence was opened up only once in the final through Ben Cohen, but Bishop and Appleford’s second tries late on completed the set for the eventual cup winners.
“I think looking back objectively it was just meant to be, we can’t claim that we necessarily were that good overall or that we had even scored 38 points in a game that season.
“It was just our day, a full house at Twickenham to get our first piece of silverware, a proper trophy in the Powergen Cup.
“When I look back at all the finals I was involved in, like the World Cup win in ‘95, it was just our day and a day we will always remember, as simple as that.”
Venter fondly harked back to those who he shared the pitch with that day on both sides of the field, including the late British and Irish Lion #668, Tom Smith.
On the recently passed great, Venter recalled: “He was just a big gentleman, props generally are like that and I don’t know why, the Good Lord must have made them like that- I don’t think I’ve ever met a prop who is not a nice guy!
“We were actually a great group of friends, so a lot of what we were about was our camaraderie and our friendships and that is what Northampton might have lacked on the day.
“We were fighting way, way above our weight but they were underachieving because they weren’t as tight as us.
“Every time I speak or meet with a member of that team, I think of the respect we have for each other and always think ‘These were warriors’.
“If I get a message from any of them, you get such a good feeling and that was the same for everyone at London Irish because people have come together and actually are friends.”
The leading man on the park and Man of the Match on the day spoke about what it meant to not only him, but the Exile Nation to finally have a mutual grasp on a long-awaited first trophy for the first team.
“The crowd was a sea of green, I didn’t know there were so many London Irish supporters and I have still kept my jersey in my study, it is one of my few special ones that I did keep.”
“I had good memories from my time at Irish, meeting great players like Conor O’Shea and Mark McCall to name but a few, and when he asked me to come back I knew it meant a lot to the people.
“Even today, the Irish people and supporters are such amazing people which is why I enjoyed it so much.
“For all the years of supporting that team, to get that day at Twickenham was a memory and that keeps them going now, they invest into the team and the new stadium in hope more memories like that can come again.”
With his former Club approaching the final throes of the 2021/22 season, Venter has been watching from afar and holds a belief that the west Londoners are on the right path to success.
“I have been to the Brentford Community Stadium twice with Saracens, and it must be the nicest stadium in the league, absolutely phenomenal because it’s not too big, a beautiful surface and in a great location- it is as good as it gets.
“Irish are doing brilliantly, even in the games they lose they are competitive and they have a strong squad of good players, particularly half-backs.
“What’s also good is there are a load of Academy guys who have come through like Tom Parton and Ollie Hassell-Collins and it’s not just superstars who have come in.
“I think they will be competitive going forwards but the league is so competitive now, even if you do have a good side.”
“The reality is any form of silverware will still be amazing for the Club, and Irish should go for the Premiership Rugby cup with their strongest side and try and win it.
“They would deserve it, from being relegated and coming back over a long period, it would be great for the Club.”
Venter resisted mentioning whether silverware was within the focus of the playing group at Irish thereafter, but the former coach’s nomadic approach meant himself and the players appreciated that particular juncture in the history of the Exiles more so at the time.
“Because I am a doctor and still work in my practice, it was always a temporary thing for me and as is everywhere else I go.
“I had my practice at Irish and I just took a sabbatical, so for me it is purely about the memory, nothing is going to last or stay, so let's go and have a brilliant time and make memories.
“Such is the way of the world, our own projects in life and nothing is permanent, which I made clear to Conor before joining and he asked me to stay for another year.
“Even the relegation battle was a memory the year after, so much of what I remember is positive at Irish that I can’t remember a bad thing.”