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Sharks: The Ostrich Animus

The Durban-based Sharks franchise was one of the most powerful brands in South Africa, and even the world.

Yet, they have produced a series of operatic PR blunders that devalued the brand to almost a goose egg.

Some have even poked fun at them and suggested they have slipped on the skin of that fruit they were once so affectionately known as, before the professional era – slipped right back to the standards of their Banana Boy days.

You just have to look at the lack of crowds at Super Rugby games – where 20,000 now seems acceptable, after 35,000 plus was the norm a year or so ago – to realise the Sharks have lost their appeal.

In fact the Durban fans have become so perfunctory, they can't even find 30,000 interested souls to attend a Test-match double header involving the Springboks.

So how did they go from the most successful franchise in the 1990s, when full-houses were regular, to the raggle-taggle, beggarly crew of this year – despite the amazing collection of super stars and international players on their books?

How can a team that features names like Willem Alberts, Marcell Coetzee, Keegan Daniel, Jean Deysel, Bismarck du Plessis, Jannie du Plessis, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Ryan Kankowski, Tendai Mtawarira, Franco van der Merwe, Meyer Bosman, Andrew James, Paul Jordaan, Patrick Lambie, Louis Ludik, Charl McLeod, Lwazi Mvovo, Odwa Ndungane, JP Pietersen, Cobus Reinach, Sibusiso Sithole, Francois Steyn, Riaan Viljoen and Tim Whitehead fail to dominate?

Injuries played a role, a substantial role! At the moment players on the injury list include Dale Chadwick, Wiehahn Herbst, Craig Burden, Jandré Marais, Meyer Bosman, Paul Jordaan, François Steyn, Tim Whitehead and JP Pietersen. And Bismarck du Plessis has just returned from injury, having not featured at all in the black-'n-white jersey before this past weekend.

They did give a glimpse of what they are capable of with the late match-winner in a come-from-behind 22-20 win over the Blues in Durban at the weekend. But it was just a glimpse and failed to even paper over the ever-widening cracks that have ensured the franchise stole the headlines for all the wrong reasons in recent weeks.

The problems that resulted in this apocalypse run much deeper than just a number of poor performances on the field. In fact, it may well have its origins in a series of events emanating from the boardroom – which burst into the open like a rodent ulcer in recent weeks.

You get the feeling it may well relate to the ostrich-like governing style that has run so deep in the upper echelons at their Kings Park headquarters.

Like their player corps, the Sharks have some esteemed names in key management positions – CEO Brian van Zyl, Commercial Director Rudolf Straeuli and former head coach John Plumtree, to name but a few. All of them accomplished, long-time servants in Durban.

However, rather than ensuring the Sharks remain one of the leading lights, they are doing a good job of giving new meaning to the adage: 'The fish rots from the head.'

There has been a feeling for some time that the failure of officials to address issues head on, rather than stick their collective heads in the sand and hope it blows over, will eventually come back to haunt the Sharks.

It appears to have finally happened.

One prime example of this is their interaction and strained liaisons with the media.

John Plumtree's unwillingness to work with certain sections of the media has long been a bone of contention – both inside and outside the Sharks Tank. Rudolf Straeuli is one of the most unpopular figures in both the media and public eye, because of his seemingly dour and defensive demeanour, while Brian van Zyl has become increasingly more unwilling to openly engage the media.

Each of them have a small group of news hounds whom they trust and speak to, but generally they are reluctant to openly engage with anybody outside their close circle of trust.

And when the media don't have easy access, the negative events tend to be the ones that attract the bigger headlines – as has happened in recent weeks.

The boil finally erupted last week with the announcement that Plumtree has left the Sharks with immediate effect, following a meeting on the Tuesday with new CEO John Smit.

But it is worth going back to November last year and create a timeline of the events that set in motion the fall-out between two of the game greatest servants.

1. The announcement was only made in late November, but on 4 October 2012 the Sharks' board of directors held their shareholders AGM, in Johannesburg of all places. Stephen Saad and Terry Rosenberg were appointed to the board – Saad assumed the role of Chairman, previously held by John Swain, who became an independent director alongside Terry Rosenberg. If it seemed an innocuous change at the time, the impact and role of Saad would become ever more prominent in the next seven months.

2. The announcement may have been made in April, but for more than a month before rumours circulated that Brian van Zyl was on his way out (his contract would not be renewed, even though he would hang around till February 2014). John Smit was linked to the position of Sharks CEO, even though he had been linked to a move to French club Toulon (apparently he made a 'pre-contract' agreement).

3. On 16 April 2013 the Board of Directors of The Sharks (Pty) Ltd revealed that they are "pleased to announce the appointment of John Smit as the new Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of The Sharks (Pty) Ltd, effective 1st July 2013. John takes over the reins from current CEO, Brian van Zyl who will mentor John until his pre-agreed retirement date of 28th February 2014."

4. Then, on 11 June 2013 it was announced by John Smit, at a formal media briefing, that John Plumtree's contract would not be renewed and that Brendan Venter will be the Director of Rugby at the Sharks. However, media reports in the days leading up to this announcement, linking Nick Mallett to the job, and the subsequent denials, expedited the public fall-out. Add to that reports linking the names of Jake White and Clive Woodward to a job in Durban and it is again clear how the 'ostrich factor' can cause more harm than good.

5. The ugly public spat that followed was to be expected, given that outgoing Sharks CEO Brian van Zyl showed his true colours when he contradicted John Smit on the Plumtree/Venter issue. Van Zyl said he wanted to make it 'very clear' that he had nothing to do with the decision not to extend Plumtree's contract. Van Zyl went public with the fact that he supported Plumtree and wanted him to stay for another two years.

6. The battle lines were drawn – with former Sharks captain and a teammate of Plumtree Craig Jamieson having taken a stance opposing Smit – and soon afterwards (14 June 2013 to be precise), the boil was finally 'lanced' when Saad went public with his and the board's support for Smit – admitting that "one may wish to discretely follow a chosen strategy". However, he was no longer able to work 'behind the scenes' and the battle lines were drawn.

7. Then last week the inevitable stand-off came at a meeting between John Smit and John Plumtree, two men who worked together so many years as coach and captain, now antagonists. Plumtree walked out immediately, even though it was said he would stay till the end of the Super Rugby season. Some reports suggested (only because yet again details were withheld) that Plumtree will be paid out for the entire two years promised to him by another departing the scene, Van Zyl.

8. Another incident that exposed the inability (or perhaps unwillingness) of some officials to deal proactively with issues, rather than do crisis management, came after former Royal Marine Brett Williams was beaten to death at the King's Park Stadium in the hours after the Super Rugby match between the Sharks and Rebels on Saturday, 23 March 2013. While the matter was handed over to the police, Sharks officials' responses to media queries were less than forthcoming. It caused more ugly headlines, as news hounds turned to other sources for their information.

9. Then there was the Keegan Daniel (English-versus-Afrikaans) saga in mid-May, a non issue if there ever was one. But again the manner in which it was dealt with suggested crisis management, rather than proactive deeds.

One thing is for certain, the damage can't be undone and the Sharks must move on – with the spotlight now firmly on Smit and Venter to ensure the forthcoming Currie Cup season and the 2014 Super Rugby campaign bring success on the field. That is the only place where they can silence their critics and repay the faith shown by Saad and company.

However, a few intriguing questions remain.

We know Plumtree did not leave willingly, that much is obvious, and the hurt he feels now can't be put in words.

But did Brian van Zyl leave of his own free will or was he forced to 'walk the plank' – given his public outburst against Smit, the man he is supposed to 'mentor' for the next six months?

And what exactly was Saad's role in all this? Is Smit being used to completely overhaul the structures put in place by Van Zyl?

I'm sure we have not seen, nor heard, the last of the 'feeding frenzy' in the Shark Tank!

By Jan de Koning


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