Sharks focusing on bright future

Sharks focusing on bright future

After former Sharks CEO Brian van Zyl’s public criticism of the current management – word from the board of directors is that the Sharks are soon to swim into calm waters.


Last week, the Mercury newspaper published an open letter written by Van Zyl, who brought into question the state of affairs at Kings Park.

He openly criticised the tenure of his successor John Smit who is set to stand down from his post later this year, while expressing dismay at the financial situation of the Sharks and the development of the game at schools, age group and amateur levels.

On Wednesday, Smit responded in kind in the Daily News, refuting Van Zyl’s remarks that the Sharks were nearing insolvency. He also went on to criticise the former CEO for airing dirty laundry.

ECRSportswave sat down for an exclusive interview with KwaZulu-Natal Rugby Union (KZNRU) president Graham MacKenzie earlier this week to discuss affairs at the Shark Tank. MacKenzie is a non-executive member of the Sharks’ board of directors.

The head of the KZNRU, which is the majority shareholder in the Sharks Pty Ltd, echoed Smit’s sentiments of Van Zyl’s letter and wanted to bring some clarity on the current state of affairs at the Sharks.

Smit’s resignation

The former Springbok and Sharks captain announced that he would resign from his position at the Sharks late last month. The news caught many by surprise and the rumour mill churned around the rugby fraternity. According to Mackenzie, Smit had made the decision early in the year.

Smit had expressed his desire to spend more time with his family after what has been a long and busy career as a player and now an administrator. He will step down at the end of the year, wanting to fulfill a number of business related objectives while hoping for some silverware on the field as well.

Mackenzie said Smit’s original appointment was agreed to by both shareholders and the board and that Smit brought unique characteristics to the company.

“He was a home grown Sharks man, who came in with a massive reputation and gravitas,” Mackenzie said.

“Furthermore, he had all the credentials to oversee the transformation of the union. He was responsible for acquiring a number of commercial contracts. When he joined us in 2013, we were without a title sponsor and he managed to secure our current deal with Cell C soon after – which was the largest commercial rugby sponsorship in the country.”

“He has helped increase revenue and obviously he has a massive network of players and agents.”

As far as Smit’s business acumen was concerned, Mackenzie and the board felt that he would have enough support with the team around him to teach him the ropes.

“He was surrounded by the likes of Steve Saad, who spent a lot of time mentoring him. We were confident he had the support base he needed.”

Financial situation

One of Van Zyl’s main criticisms is the financial wellbeing of the Sharks. The former CEO claims to have left the business with money in the bank. However both Mackenzie and Smit have refuted this claim.

Backed by financial documents, Mackenzie claims that by the time Smit began his tenure as CEO, the Sharks were already battling with debt midway through 2013. This comes after Van Zyl’s statements that the Sharks had made R14 million in profits before dividends were paid out to shareholders at the end of 2012.

Van Zyl questioned why the Sharks board hasn’t approved a financial report for 2015 – suggesting that the Sharks were swimming in further debt.

Mackenzie stressed that these financials would soon be released and intimated that ongoing discussions with shareholders were nearing a close – which Mackenzie said would be a massive boon to the Sharks finances. These statements echo Smit's statements earlier this week, where he was quoted as saying their "shareholders have been a tower of strength, agreeing to capitalise the company appropriately."

Developing the game

As for the KZNRU’s involvement in developing the game, Mackenzie said plans are in place to revive the U20 age group in club rugby. He also said there had been great feedback from the Sharks’ Currie Cup qualifier outings to Umlazi, Claremont, KwaMashu and Newcastle over the past few months.

“Unfortunately the U20 division of club rugby has struggled. This year we only had four teams in the U20 A and B divisions. This comes from an over-reliance on the Sharks Academy,” Mackenzie said.

“We have plans put in place that will increase the participation in U20s. Our Durban clubs will have to field two U20 sides as a prerequisite. They have to actively look at recruiting players to join clubs.”

According to statistics produced by Mackenzie, 65 clubs were competing in club rugby competitions around the province last year. In 2016, 67 clubs were actively involved in the various leagues.

The KZNRU head was more enthused about the state of the game at schools level. In particular, Mackenzie highlighted statistics from development rugby schools. From 2012, 4586 players were competing high school rugby while 7083 players were enrolled in 2016. Primary schools had 5614 players in 2012, which rose significantly to 11 158 players in 2016.

“As for our involvement in spreading the game, we broke ground in taking rugby out to the townships. Last weekend the Sharks played in Newcastle and there were some 4000 people there. Bear in mind that kickoff was at the same time as the Springbok game,” he added.

2016 and beyond

The Sharks have narrowed down a list of potential candidates to succeed Smit having advertised the post on both the Sharks and South African Rugby Union websites.

Meanwhile, talks between the Sharks and the eThekwini Municipality are still ongoing regarding a potential move to the Moses Mabhida Stadium. Mackenzie stressed that a move would only be made in the best interests of the Sharks and the KZNRU – while he seemed confident that was the case.

For the good of the game

If anything, the recent public spat has highlighted the shortcomings of the game in the province. With plans a foot to rectify the current situation, fans can only hope that the brains trust at the Sharks get it right.

Both the amateur and professional arms of the game need financially sound administration in order to thrive. If the Sharks can navigate this financial squall, they will have a healthy boardroom, smiling fans and trophies in the cabinet.

Rugby fans, business-people and locals will be watching developments at Kings Park with a keen eye, as will I. Rugby in the province needs the Sharks to be forthcoming with information and forward-thinking in the way they tackle what are some difficult economic times.


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File photo: Andre Bloem

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