DURBAN, SOUTH AFRICA - JULY 29:  during Cell C Sharks press conference at Jock Leyden Media Centre, Growthpoint Kings Park on July 29, 2014 in Durban, South Africa. (Photo by Steve Haag)
DURBAN, SOUTH AFRICA - JULY 29: during Cell C Sharks press conference at Jock Leyden Media Centre, Growthpoint Kings Park on July 29, 2014 in Durban, South Africa. (Photo by Steve Haag)

by Darryn Pollock

Durban - Sharks chief executive John Smit on Tuesday swung hard at his predecessor, Brian van Zyl, disputing that KwaZulu-Natal’s rugby operation was in financial trouble.

He described Van Zyl’s highly critical open letter about the new guard at the Sharks as a cheap shot, and expressed regret at their public spat, saying his predecessor had not returned his telephone calls.

In a letter to The Mercury on Friday, Van Zyl claimed that since Smit had taken over at King’s Park in 2013, the Sharks had “deteriorated from a sound financial position to that approximating insolvency”.

Van Zyl, chief executive from 1994 to 2013, said that on his departure the enterprise was R14 million in profit. Thereafter, during 2013 and 2014, the losses amounted to R40 million, he said.

Smith replied on Wednesday: “Firstly, our financial position is stable.

“Player salaries have risen dramatically in recent years amid the talent drain to Europe and Japan.

“However, at the Sharks, we have managed our costs effectively and our shareholders have been a tower of strength, agreeing to capitalise the company appropriately.

“Brian’s suggestion that these financial challenges suddenly began when he left the organisation in 2013 is contradicted by the audited financial statements. The previous losses and the lack of governance are well documented.

“This is of little consequence now. What does matter is that Sharks supporters can rest assured the organisation has been managed effectively and responsibly over the past three years, we are approaching break-even in 2016 and our future is bright.”

Smit took on the issue of a potential move to Moses Mabhida Stadium. Van Zyl said his discussions while in office amounted to it being “not financially viable”.

“...It bears repeating that the Sharks will only move to play at the Moses Mabhida Stadium if the decision makes commercial sense,” said Smit.

“We have restored a constructive dialogue with the city, removing the personal enmity that was once a barrier to any interaction, and discussions continue. The final decision will be made by the Sharks board, following detailed consultation with all stakeholders, including sponsors, suite and season ticket holders, clubs and the rugby fraternity at large.”

Smit challenged Van Zyl’s claim the game of rugby had not been grown under the KZNRU and president Graham McKenzie’s watch.

“We have embraced the challenge of transformation by taking the game to places such as uMlazi, KwaMashu and Clermont and, where not long ago we were regarded as the grumpy guys moaning on the touchline, we have now put ourselves in the front row of initiatives to grow our game.”

He added: “I take no pleasure from this public spat with my predecessor as CEO. I have tried to contact Brian van Zyl directly to resolve any issues, but he has declined to return my calls.

“Ever since I arrived in Durban as an excited 18-year-old, I have only ever strived for what is best for the Sharks. As a player, as captain and most recently as CEO, I have always given my best and been grateful for the opportunities, and I am proud of what has been achieved.

“I have always respected the institution. Only Brian will know whether his letter to The Mercury was motivated by similarly pure concerns and considerations, as he claims, or whether, in fact, it represents the opening salvo in a campaign to challenge current office-bearers at the KZNRU... and he doesn’t care who is caught in the crossfire.”

Smit said his instinctive reaction had been not to respond “to his sadly personal attack”.

“I learnt long ago that criticism is part of the game. You take it on the chin. However, an increasing number of friends and colleagues have urged me to defend myself and my reputation.

“In rugby, on the field, if somebody gets in a cheap shot, you take their number and make sure you put in a big hit before the 80 minutes have passed. That’s the game.

“Maybe the same principle applies in the boardroom but, I can assure you, it’s nothing like as much fun.”