Durban – Twenty-four hours. That is what stood between John Smit making a gracious re-entry into Sharks rugby and the public relations fiasco that ultimately unfolded last week when current Sharks coach John Plumtree found out in the media that he was to be replaced.
The Sharks were left looking like underhanded mafiosi while the people’s champion, Plumtree, was swamped with moral support. It was not supposed to have turned out that way. Smit, a man who always conducted himself with decorum and integrity during his 16 years as a professional rugby player and captain of the Springboks and the Sharks, planned it very differently, but not long after he stepped off the plane in Joburg from Heathrow on Sunday, June 9, the harsh reality of rugby management slapped him in the face after his two years cocooned in London playing for Saracens.
“I arrived in South Africa on the Sunday, having scheduled a meeting with Plumtree for the next day. I had flown out with my family, with my daughter just nine days old, because I wanted to sit down face to face with Plum and explain why I had decided not to renew his contract,” the new Sharks chief executive reveals.
“Plum had wanted to fly to London to speak to me about his future but I did not feel that was right.”
But that Sunday a newspaper quoted former Springbok coach Nick Mallett as saying that he had been offered Plumtree’s job, but had turned it down.
Plumtree read it and was understandably livid. Smit also read it and his heart sank.
“Here I am with a meeting scheduled with Plum for the next day and this story breaks. I was totally blindsided. I was so disappointed in Nick. He had not hurt me but he had hurt Plum and his family,” Smit reflects.
The story was true, but it was not supposed to have been leaked to the press.
“Some time before, I had told the board I was not to going to renew Plum’s contract and they told me to put together back-up plans. I had inquiries from all over the world, including from former Springbok coach Jake White and former England coach Clive Woodward, both Rugby World Cup winners, but I had been excited by what I had seen from Brendan Venter at Saracens,” Smit said.
“I had seen Mallett in London when he coached a Barbarians team against Saracens and during a public Q and A with him he was asked if he would consider coaching again in South Africa. He did not say much, but after the session I asked Saracens CEO Edward Griffiths to check with Nick if he was interested in coaching again in South Africa.
“Edward came back to me with a ‘No’ from Nick,” Smit recalls. “I was happy with the news because I was not really keen on a headstrong coach, anyway. I wanted something different. I was relieved when he said no. He obviously wanted to leverage himself on to the coaching market with a view to coaching internationally in the future and dropped it into the media. It was not very professional of a man of his stature.”
Smit says it would have all been so different if he had had that chance to sit down with Plumtree on the Monday and had a man-to-man conversation. “I wanted to say: ‘I want you to know first and these are my reasons… ’ but he did not find out first – he found out last, in the media. He has every right to be pissed off,” Smit said.
“It was not how it was supposed to be. But I could not control the political grandstanding of Nick Mallett. And I don’t think Nick, as much as he was putting himself on the market, realised the repercussions it would have on one man and his family, and also the people who supported Plumtree and enjoy the Sharks. How it came out was terrible and the last thing I had planned.”
To this day, Smit and Plumtree have still not had that meeting. Again, Smit wishes things were different.
“That Monday morning I went to see (current chief executive) Brian van Zyl and told him of my decision regarding the position of coach. I then went down to the field to try to speak to Plum at a training session but it was clear he did not want to engage with me. He was angry. We had a brief exchange and I had to officially give him the bad news on the side of the field like a school teacher. So we have yet to have the conversation.”
The first major thing Smit had to do in his new role turned out a mess. Welcome back to South African rugby.
“I had been hiding in St Albans for two years and had almost forgotten the media attention in South Africa,” he says. “What this has made me realise is that we have to be forthright with information. We can’t blame the media for writing what they hear. This was a news development that came out in the worst possible way, which was obviously not my intention. I don’t blame Plum for being angry. He is a mate of mine, so are his assistant coaches (Hugh Reece-Edwards and Grant Bashford). I have never had to give anyone bad news. All I can say is that it was not an overnight decision. I did a massive amount of research.”
And the primary reason for the change of coach is that Smit believes the Sharks need to be refreshed. In his book, Captain in the Cauldron, Smit described Plumtree as the best coach he had ever experienced. So what changed?
“Nothing has changed. When Plum was assistant coach under Dick Muir in 2007, as a hands-on coach, he was unbelievable,” Smit says.
“His attention to detail and his methods of training us at the breakdown were brilliant. He remains a very good coach. I suppose, though – as head coach – sometimes you fall by the wayside a bit in terms of having a hands-on approach. Also, he probably has not had a massive amount of support in terms of leadership from the higher echelons.
“An important thing to consider is that Plumtree has had 10 back-to-back campaigns through Super Rugby and the Currie Cup, and that is hard and it takes its toll, so I feel, from an environment point of view, it is time for the players to experience something different,” Smit said. “They have had good coaching under Plum and won two Currie Cups, but, as well as we have done, is that the best we could have done considering how much we invest in players?
“I won my one and only Currie Cup under Plum and am very grateful, but the bottom line is that it is time for a change in the way we play, the way we manage players, and for us to have a combined coaching structure for all our teams across the board. We need a rugby revival.”
Smit is a rugby man through and through and his concluding words express the hope that one day two great Sharks men can look each other in the eye.
“It would be a very sad day for me if in 10 years’ time I am walking through Umhlanga Rocks and I encounter John Plumtree, and we are unable to greet each other.” – The Mercury