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John Smit blows the final whistle

Published Aug 12, 2016

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Durban - John Smit, resplendent in plum-coloured jeans and a checked pink shirt, is now unmistakably a man of leisure. Distinguished rugby playing career done and dusted. Three never-a-dull-moment years at the helm of the Sharks consigned to his CV.

Now, he says in a parting interview at the coffee shop Cona More, he is thoroughly committed to staying unemployed.

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He will return to rugby in some kind of role once he has consolidated his bond with his three young children, but for now it is about giving back to his wife and family after 20 years of “abnormal” life in rugby.

In giving this wash-up interview, Smit has one condition - no reopening of the freshly healed wounds of the public spat between himself plus KZNRU president Graham Mackenzie, on one side, and on the other Smit’s predecessor in the chief executive hot seat at King’s Park, Brian van Zyl.

Smit would prefer an entente cordiale. He says each side has had their say regarding Van Zyl’s allegations that the Sharks are in a perilous financial situation (of Smit’s doing) and Smit perhaps rightly says that the KZN public is fatigued with the negativity and interested only in success on the pitch.

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Smit, though, is happy to chew the cud on a number of issues, from the paucity of quality coaches in this country, not to mention the unsavoury Jake White episode that culminated in Smit having to sack the coach with whom he won the 2007 Rugby World Cup; to the challenges facing South African rugby. His comments on the possible move to the Moses Mabhida Stadium are an elucidation, and, yes, he wishes he could travel back in time and handle the John Plumtree saga differently.

There is one thing on which Smit acknowledges he is in accord with Van Zyl, the skilled administrator that guided “Natal” out of the amateur days and into a professional era in which the Sharks were born and often set the trends.

“I was inexperienced,” Smit says of his appointment in July 2013. “I knew almost nothing about finance and going from the changeroom to the boardroom was very challenging. But I feel can hold my head high. There is no degree in the world that could have given me the education that I have had over the last three years.

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“And going in cold was possibly to my benefit. Had I known a little, I might not have asked the questions I did,” he reflects. “But because I was so ignorant I questioned anything and everything as I worked my way through the various departments at Sharks HQ. And changes had to be made. A lot of streamlining has been made. Budgets have been cut, including the player bill.

“There has been a lot of freshening up. There has been a need to regenerate, and this is by no means a criticism of my predecessor. Brian did a huge amount of good, and he should be proud of that. I am just saying that the Sharks were entering a new cycle when I came in and I hopefully have been able to invigorate the business.”

One of the 38-year-old Smit’s biggest controversies as boss of the Sharks was his very first - the sacking of John Plumtree, who subsequently went on to assist Ireland to a Six Nations triumph and latterly has been part of the Hurricanes coaching set-up that made the Super Rugby final last year and won it a few weeks ago.

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Hindsight

“With hindsight, I would have done things differently,” Smit said. “I would have saved everybody a lot of pain if I had told Plum that he would have another season as coach while I found a successor, because I felt that we needed to freshen up the coaching after Plum had been in charge for a long time.

“Plum had asked for a one-year extension before I took charge and that might have helped had that been granted.

“I got it wrong in that Plum found out in the media. That was not the plan and when (former Bok coach) Nick Mallett had said in the press that he was not interested in coaching the Sharks and was focused on his position as an analyst with SuperSport, Plum was incensed. I recall trying to talk to him after a Sharks training session towards the end of the 2013 Super Rugby season and he was so furious that he would not make eye contact with me as he stormed off. I understand why he was so angry. I would have liked to have spoken to him about a coaching succession plan, but we never got to have that conversation. It was a colossal stuff-up.”

The succession plan that Smit had in mind primarily involved Brendan Venter. The former Springbok centre joined the Sharks, not long after Smit took office, as a consultant, and the Sharks immediately won the Currie Cup, but Venter did not want to continue as coach.

“My plan had been to convince Brendan to accept a long-term coaching position at the Sharks. I had experienced his coaching at Saracens (in London) and I thought he was the way forward. He had so many new ideas. But I could not convince him to commit to us full-time. He is very passionate about his medical practice and could not change his mind.”

Smit experienced a stroke of luck when White suddenly entered the job market after he had been scorned by the Australian Rugby Union. White had been successfully coaching the Brumbies and wanted the Wallabies job, but the ARU instead went for an Australian in Ewen Mackenzie.

And so a miffed White quit Australian rugby and returned to Durban, where he had been assistant coach to Hugh Reece-Edwards in 2000. Funnily enough, that also ended unhappily

The Sharks flourished under White and topped the Super Rugby table for much of 2014, but there were underlying tensions.

One of the major problems is that White had inherited a coaching staff he did not rate. Rightly or wrongly, White did not have confidence in Brad Macleod-Henderson and Sean Everitt and, according to Smit, became increasingly autocratic.

“If I had hired Jake with the assistance he wanted, things might have been different.

“There were two camps - the youngsters plus the black players that Jake was giving opportunities to, and then the seniors, who did not enjoy him one bit.”

The Sharks were doing well on the log, but Smit says he had to act before the bubble burst.

“Jake was doing a good rugby job, but he was beating people up along the way. He was alienating just about everyone. I told him he could not continue. The John Mitchell effect was fast approaching, in terms of a player revolt.

“The senior players were fed up with Jake treating them like schoolboys. The situation was becoming untenable, and I think he was more relieved than me when we parted ways.

“Jake’s treatment of some of the players was regrettable. Keegan Daniel went from holding the Currie Cup at the end of 2013 to being treated like a leper.”

According to Smit, a major problem facing South African rugby is a lack of quality coaches. Foreign coaches are unaffordable and there are few top coaches coming through the system in South Africa.

Major problem

“I believe it is the major problem facing South African rugby. We can’t afford overseas coaches and we do not have strong characters coming through. We have plenty of coaches who make good assistants but almost nobody who could take a franchise by the scruff of the neck.

“Johan Ackermann is an exception, but it should be remembered that he was able to build from rock bottom.”

Smit says South African coaches are afraid to commit themselves to positive, attacking rugby. There is no better example of this than former Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer, who went from cavalier rugby to a terribly conservative game in the World Cup following the opening round defeat to Japan.

No interview with a Sharks administrator would be complete without a word on the (dreaded) move from the Sharks’ spiritual home to the modern Moses Mabhida Stadium.

“I have this to say. I bled on the turf of Kings Park as a player, as did so many of my teammates, and so many before us,” Smit said. “I would not commit the Sharks to a move that would willy-nilly forsake Kings Park.

“When I came in 2013, there was no relationship between us and the city. That has been repaired and we are now partners with Durban Tourism. We have investigated what a possible transaction would look like as to the Sharks moving next door. It is hugely attractive to the Sharks in that it would make us the richest franchise in South African rugby.

“One of the stadiums has to go. Will it be Kings Park, that is in need of repair, or Moses Mabhida?” Smit asked. “Either way, there is a lot of water to flow under the bridge before a decision is made.”

The Mercury

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