Three years ago a rugby website blogger confessed that a letter he had published in The Mercury, in which he discredited retired former Sharks chief executive Brian van Zyl, was not his letter at all.
The letter had been supplied to him by the Sharks’ social media manager Chris Micklewood and he had agreed to add his name to it. The blogger, Benedict Chanakira, came clean when Van Zyl threatened him with a defamation of character writ.
It emerged that Chanakira was not the Sharks’ first port of call. First Micklewood sounded out East Coast Radio journalist Gareth Jenkinson, his College Rovers teammate (they played rugby for the same club) but Jenkinson refused to go near it.
And when the prepared letter appeared in the paper under the name of Chanakira, Jenkinson raised the alarm. Micklewood, under intense scrutiny from his highly embarrassed employers at the Sharks, admitted his culpability in the smear campaign but insisted that the letter had been given to him by a power bearer at the Sharks, who he refused to name.
The context to this soap opera at a rugby union that had once set the standard for rugby professionalism in South Africa was a letter an exasperated Van Zyl had penned in The Mercury in which he was critical of KZN Rugby Union president Graham Mackenzie’s administration while also alerting the public to the dismaying fact that the Sharks were on the point of insolvency, and so serious was their financial distress that, for the first time in their history, the union had been unable to present their financial statements.
The Sharks, who under Van Zyl (the chief executive from 1994 to 2013) had always turned a profit, were virtually bankrupt after three years under John Smit, Van Zyl’s successor. This was a union that blazed the way in the post-amateur era, to the extent that in the ‘90s, Super Rugby’s multi-champion Crusaders initially copied the Sharks’ model that had seen the Durban union win four Currie Cup titles and play second fiddle only to Auckland in the Super 12.
Steve Tew, the Canterbury boss at that time who would later run the New Zealand Rugby Union with such ruthless efficiency, came to the Sharks to see how it was done.
Now the Kings Park edifice was in danger of toppling. How did the Sharks lose their way, and have lessons finally been learned as the process to find successors to outgoing chief executive Gary Teichmann and Super Rugby coach Robert du Preez escalate?
We have just witnessed a Super Rugby season where the renegade Du Preez went unchecked in bringing the Sharks’ brand into disrepute with his attacks on the media and a curious selection policy that some felt bordered on nepotism.
It could be that the Sharks hierarchy were content to give the coach enough rope with which to hang himself, which he has done. A review of Du Preez’s peformance in Super Rugby is being undertaken.
The truth is that the Sharks keep shooting themselves in the foot by appointing the wrong people, especially on the coaching front which has seen a succession of disappointments, since Smit’s first act as chief executive in 2013 was the sacking of John Plumtree, who is now on the shortlist to succeed Steve Hansen at the All Blacks.
Let’s back track six years to when the Sharks first went off track.
Van Zyl was approaching 65 and the hunt for a new CEO was on. Mackenzie was the President and he and elements on the Board felt that Smit, a great Sharks and Springbok captain, would be the perfect choice for a bright new dawn at the Sharks.
Van Zyl, who built the Sharks into the success they had been, wanted to continue as a mentor in a hand over/take over period until the new chief executive had learned the ropes.
But Smit was interviewed (and appointed) without Van Zyl being present, which was crazy because a man who had been in the position for 26 years would have been able to point out that Smit did not have the necessary business experience.
Van Zyl could have pointed out the folly of taking a player out of the changeroom and putting him in charge of a challenging business when he had not learned the tools of the trade.
Smit is undoubtedly intelligent and capable but at that time he did not know how to run a business. He did not help himself by spurning the recommendation that Van Zyl mentor him for the six months the outgoing chief executive still had to go before his retirement date.
Instead, Van Zyl spent that time at his leisure, his considerable business acumen unexploited, while still on the payroll.
One of Van Zyl’s last acts in office was to draft a two-year contract extension for Plumtree; one of Smit’s first actions was to summarily fire the New Zealander.
It is not beyond the realms of possibility that a fallout between Smit and Plumtree when the former was still a Sharks player had something to do with it. There had been the prickly issue of the coach at one point favouring Bismarck du Plessis over Smit in the Sharks starting line-up, which had rankled the Springbok captain.
In any event, Plumtree was fired without a long-term successor in the pipeline. Brenden Venter, who had coached Smit at Saracens, had agreed to help out as an interim coach for the Currie Cup, but for no longer as he wanted to concentrate on his medical practice in the Cape.
The Sharks won the 2013 Currie Cup, but Venter left, leaving Smit empty-handed for the 2014 season. The situation was temporarily resolved when Smit renewed his partnership with former Bok coach Jake White, but he would later have to sack White when the players threatened a revolt, claiming the coach treated them like schoolboys.
Smit had meanwhile gone on a player buying spree, a lot of them expensive Saracens has-beens, the likes of Matt Stevens, Mouritz Botha and New Zealand wing Jack Wilson, who never played a game.
This was also the time when the industry was starting to take strain, chiefly because fans were preferring watching games in their home cinemas. Season ticket and suite sales were plummeting, so expenditure should have been curtailed.
When Teichmann took over, the Sharks were about R80 million down over the previous three years, having never previously made a loss. In Smit’s last year, 2015, the Sharks lost a disastrous R39m.
The situation was so dire that partners SuperSport had to buy a further 9% shares in the KZNRU. For the Sharks, that was akin to selling the family silver.
Under Teichmann, the losses have been significantly arrested, with the Sharks about R15m down over his three-year tenure. Even so, a lot more could have been saved because Robert du Preez’s coaching staff was overly bloated. At a Sharks training session there was a sea of clipboard and whistle-wielding coaches.
Three of those coaches recently resigned at the Sharks after alleged rifts with Du Preez. Kicking coach Braam van Straaten has gone to the Kings, skills coach AB Zondagh to Toulon and backline coach Ricardo Laubscher to Stade Francais.
That will not only save the Sharks a few bob but it is also so refreshing to see the tight coaching unit for the Currie Cup that comprises head coach Sean Everitt, Nick Easter (forwards) and David Williams (backs).
Teichmann’s bid to turn around the finances has not been helped by the Saru payment model to the 14 unions that is skewed in favour of the smaller unions, which get too much while the franchises that carry the game in this country don’t get enough. It is an ongoing fight for the major franchises to get more of the television broadcasting rights. This year the Sharks got R32.5m when the true value is around R50m.
But that crusade will have to be continued by the new chief executive. That is likely to be Eduard Coetzee, the 39-year-old former Sharks prop and current chief operations officer.
Coetzee has been in the Sharks system for some years and coming from a financial background he on paper appears to be a good choice but, like Smit, he has no experience of running a business.
And this is where Van Zyl comes in. It is funny how the wheel turns. Van Zyl is back on the board of the Sharks, having made his comeback through his position as chairman of the Durban Rugby Sub Union.
With Van Zyl back in the frame, surely this time the Sharks will bow to common sense and have him mentor the new chief executive for a breaking-in period.