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Rough Diamond

Martin Gillingham

  • Opinion

The final whistle blown, the closing line delivered, the red light on the Glensound box extinguished, and the cans (broadcast-speak for headphones) slipped off. It’s time to revisit my former life as a 400metres hurdler by sprinting from the gantry, sliding down the ladder, finding a lift that isn’t stuck on the mezzanine floor, all in a frantic bid to get down to the players’ tunnel in time to exchange pleasantries with the (cue more broadcast industry syntax) ENG cameraman and sound guy or gal, and still have a few moments’ thinking time before the director of rugby is dragged in front of the sponsors’ boards by our trusted floor manager for their compulsory and contractually-obliged post-match interlocution. 

Such was the preamble all those years ago to my now infamous exchange on Sky Sports with the then Saracens boss Brendan Venter – a media event given life in the bowels of a condemned grandstand at Watford’s Vicarage Road in the aftermath of their surprise defeat by the then Racing Metro. Fifty-eight seconds of television gold. And though that marvellous just-less-than-a-minute carried not a single atom of meaningful rugby analysis, it did carve into post-match interview folklore the immortal line, “Three cheers to Sireli Bobo”.

The final whistle blown, the closing line delivered, the red light on the Glensound box extinguished, and the cans (broadcast-speak for headphones) slipped off. It’s time to revisit my former life as a 400metres hurdler by sprinting from the gantry, sliding down the ladder, finding a lift that isn’t stuck on the mezzanine floor, all in a frantic bid to get down to the players’ tunnel in time to exchange pleasantries with the (cue more broadcast industry syntax) ENG cameraman and sound guy or gal, and still have a few moments’ thinking time before the director of rugby is dragged in front of the sponsors’ boards by our trusted floor manager for their compulsory and contractually-obliged post-match interlocution. 

Such was the preamble all those years ago to my now infamous exchange on Sky Sports with the then Saracens boss Brendan Venter – a media event given life in the bowels of a condemned grandstand at Watford’s Vicarage Road in the aftermath of their surprise defeat by the then Racing Metro. Fifty-eight seconds of television gold. And though that marvellous just-less-than-a-minute carried not a single atom of meaningful rugby analysis, it did carve into post-match interview folklore the immortal line, “Three cheers to Sireli Bobo”.

For now, though, let’s focus on another former Saracens boss, Steve Diamond, or ‘Dimes’ as he’s known in the biz. Dimes is a bit of a one-off. How else do you describe the only Gallagher Premiership director of rugby to have appeared on ‘Through the Keyhole’? OK, so the guided tour around Dimes’ splendid Cheshire gaff was neither narrated by the nauseating mid-Atlantic tones of Loyd Grossman, nor produced for the purposes of ITV primetime.

Steve Diamond
Steve Diamond can be abrasive with the media but he knows how to get the best out of his players (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

He did, though, open his front door for an altogether more homespun effort to leverage Sale Sharks’ association with a property agency. You see, Dimes not only shouts ‘n’ screams on the training paddock but he’s also happy to schmooze the clients and sponsors before and after hours. Dimes understands the commercial stuff every bit as much as he does the choke tackle. And, by the way, there’s nothing naff about his kitchen’s range of Neff integrated appliances.    

If he is as mean and bullying as some would have you believe, how does he manage to persuade a legion of experienced internationals to play in the shadow of a concrete flyover?

I would be misleading you if I claimed Dimes is everyone’s cup of tea. I like him though. Rough edges? Yes. An Alsatian occasionally at his side? Yes again. But where Dimes attracts full marks is that he understands the media. He knows exactly what we’re looking for – a good line. Win, lose or draw, Dimes never keeps you waiting and rarely delivers anything other than three answers or 90 seconds of post-match chat that is worth five minutes from many others.

Faf de Klerk
World Cup winner Faf de Klerk chose Diamond’s Sale over a host of other clubs (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

His persona is genuine yet, at the same time, he plays hard to Sale’s reputation as the professional game’s unfashionable northern outlier. Dimes has been accused of being a bully. Forthright? Definitely. Capable of striking a menacing pose? Certainly. But if he is as mean and bullying as some would have you believe, how does he manage to persuade a legion of World Cup winners and experienced internationals to play their rugby in Salford in the shadow of a concrete flyover? The Sharks may have more money to spend on players than ever before but the likes of Faf de Klerk will have had options. Double espressos in Place Capitole or an infinity pool overlooking the Med? Nah. If you believe some, Faf is at Sale because he prefers a mug of builder’s tea and a bollocking off Dimes in a quiet corner of the Trafford Centre.  

Solomons gives nothing away. He’s a bit like the solicitor drafted in at short notice to represent the accused in their first police interview under caution. No comment, no comment.

Dimes and Worcester director of rugby Alan Solomons have plenty in common. They’ve both worked wonders at their respective clubs while each plies his trade in earshot of a motorway. In interview terms, though, they are one another’s antithesis. Solomons gives little away. He’s a bit like the solicitor drafted in at short notice to represent the accused in their first police interview under caution. No comment, no comment. Not quite right but you get my drift. But then there’s a reason for that because a lawyer is precisely what Solomons is. 

Alan Solomons
Alan Solomons isn’t as colourful a character as Steve Diamond but he’s still nobody’s fool (Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images)

How else do you explain the former partner at a prestigious Capetonian law firm’s brilliant dissection of the facts on BT Sport following the Andrew Kitchener red card in the game against Bristol in September? For more than three minutes without pausing to draw breath, he offered an articulate, persuasive and compelling defence of his player that, had it been in front of a judge rather than Sarra Elgan, would have made George Carman look like a gibbering, monosyllabic fool. When probed about mundane rugby stuff like, ‘Why did you lose today?’ Solly’s answer is likely to be brief and bland. On the other hand, throw at him a matter of Law and his eyes light up and you struggle to shut him up. 

My only warning that something out of the ordinary was heading my way came from the then Saracens chief executive Edward Griffiths just before kick-off: “Brendan’s going to talk today, Gillers. It’ll be a good one.”

Finally, allow me to return to Brendan Venter and the interview which celebrates its 10th anniversary in the coming weeks. The cause of it all was the 1995 World Cup winner’s frustration at having been fined for his criticism of a referee following an earlier Heineken Cup match. The Racing Metro tie was billed as his return to post-match duties following a spell of self-imposed gagging exile. That afternoon my only warning that something out of the ordinary was heading my way came from the then Saracens chief executive Edward Griffiths just before kick-off: “Brendan’s going to talk today, Gillers. It’ll be a good one.”

Ed Griffiths and Brendan Venter
Brendan Venter once gave a memorable interview to Martin Gillingham (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

It later emerged Venter’s interview was inspired by the Ricky Tomlinson spoof film ‘Mike Bassett: England Manager’. In one scene ,actor Bradley Walsh (playing England coach Dave Dodds) when quizzed by a reporter did nothing more than either agree with, or repeat back, the questions fired at him. The film had been screened a week earlier on the Saracens team bus to a match at Gloucester and Venter decided it provided the perfect template for his next live TV interview. 

Gillingham: “Brendan, how disappointed are you?”

Venter: “Disappointed. Very disappointed. Very disappointed.”

Gillingham: “What went wrong because you got off to such a wonderful start?”

Venter: “Interesting. I wonder what went wrong? I’ll have to think about it.”

 Gillingham: “What did go wrong?”

Venter: “I wonder what did go wrong. I’ll have to think about it… think about it deeply.”

Gillingham: “In the end, did it hinge on a bit of genius from Sireli Bobo?”

Venter: “Bit of genius, bit of magic, Sireli Bobo, very interesting, very good yah. Three cheers for Sireli Bobo. Very good. Very good.”

Gillingham: What were you happy with about your side? 
Venter: Happy? Everything. Very good, very happy with my team.

Gillingham: But you didn’t win did you Brendan? 
Venter: No, well, we didn’t win. It’s true.

Gillingham: Why didn’t you win? 
Venter: Good question that, very good question. It’s important to win, it is. We must try harder, absolutely, yes.

Gillingham: Do you think it’s a lack of effort? 
Venter: Lack of effort, lack of effort? I can’t think it’s a lack of effort.

Gillingham: So what is it Brendan? 
Venter: What would it be, let me think. I’m not sure. I’ll have to think about that one. Think about it deeply.