The Durban-based Sharks are wowing rugby watchers with their effective and eye-catching brand of rugby in 2020, but that is only part of their story.
The four-time Super Rugby runners-up are also playing and winning with a team that is consistently among the most racially transformed in the history of rugby in this country. That might sound passé in 2020, but it’s hugely significant because they represent transformation and excellence. For so long, in the eyes of so many, transformation was equated with mediocrity.
On Saturday the Sharks and the Stormers meet in a key Super Rugby clash at Durban’s Kings Park Stadium. The two sides are the most racially transformed in the country and also the two best-performing South African teams. The Sharks go into this weekend top of the overall standings on 20 points after five wins in six games – including three in Australasia. The Stormers have won four out of five and are in play-off position.
Super Rugby is in its 25th season, there has never been a South African team that fielded more than 50% black players week-in and out as Sean Everitt’s Sharks team is currently doing. Much of the Sharks’ development into a team that is fast becoming the benchmark for what real transformation in rugby should look like – both in terms of demographic representation and playing style – stems from the franchise’s leadership.
“Using myself as an example, I grew up an Afrikaans boy in South Africa and I knew about apartheid, I knew it was wrong but I was raised believing that rugby was a white man’s sport,” current Sharks chief executive officer Eduard Coetzee told Daily Maverick.
“Later in life, I unpacked it for myself and realised rugby was actually played widely across this country. While white South Africans were playing Test matches, so were black and coloured rugby players playing Tests against each other in other parts of South Africa.
“There were strong black clubs in Kimberley and the Western and Eastern Cape. That made me realise we weren’t taking a new sport to those communities, all we had to do was reignite a flame for the sport by being inclusive. We had to go humbly and apologise for the past and try to normalise something that wasn’t normal.”
Fear and suspicion and the STP
Transformation has, since South Africa’s readmission into world rugby in 1992, been a thorny issue because those tasked with racially changing the game spent more time moving the goalposts to retain the status quo for reasons varying from pure racism to the perception that rugby was a game for whites, and white Afrikaners only.
All South African teams were guilty of paying little more than lip service to genuine transformation for the better part of two decades. It was viewed with suspicion and fear. In most parts of the rugby establishment, transformation (or quotas in an earlier iteration of the policy), equalled weakness and under-performance. Many coaches and administrators either didn’t understand the genuine potential benefit of transformation, or if they did, they ignored the option of mining untapped communities for talent by preferring to focus on what was familiar and comfortable.
With few exceptions that was the position adopted by most unions and by the Springboks for 20 years. SA Rugby, the governing body, was also unable to develop a cohesive policy on the matter until 2015 when it released its Strategic Transformation Plan (STP).
That document, which came out two decades after the Boks famously won the 1995 Rugby World Cup final with one black player (Chester Williams) in the team, for the first time made black player selection an official policy. For years previously, there had been “gentlemen’s agreements” regarding the quota system and it simply never worked.
The implementation of the STP set the Springboks, Super Rugby and Currie Cup teams a target of 50% black player representation by 2019. It was a line in the sand, although it doesn’t contain measures for failing to meet those goals.
The STP set a high bar, considering how low the base of genuine transformation had been to that point. Despite initial grumbling, it focused minds and changed the accepted position of choosing a few black outside backs, which most teams had taken.
Rassie Erasmus’s Springboks might have fallen short of the 50% target at all times in 2019, but they came close and won the World Cup last year thanks to some significant contributions from black players such as hooker Bongi Mbonambi, wings Makazole Mapimpi and Cheslin Kolbe, captain and flank Siya Kolisi, prop Tendai Mtawarira and centre Lukhanyo Am.
Erasmus embraced the challenge of finding black Test talent despite an environment at Super Rugby level that was still struggling to consistently produce enough black players. The Stormers and Sharks, in particular, have kicked down that barrier and are producing winning, transformed teams.
“I can’t speak for other unions, but the STP was useful because it gave transformation a much-needed nudge,” Coetzee, who played professionally as a prop, says. “The myths and bias around transformation needed to be broken down, and the STP helped with that – at least with the Sharks it did.
“Our big theme at the Sharks is creating the right culture, and if that is right then aspects such as transformation follow. Our culture is all about inclusivity and diversity and in that environment transformation is progressive and not punitive. I admit when I was a player I saw transformation as a threat.
“My initial thought was always that I would be unfairly treated in selection. But I came to realise that I was using it (transformation) as an excuse to cover for my own insecurities.
“That is why I am all about creating a great culture here at King’s Park, which is driven by the senior management and coaches and which filters down through the rest of the organisation.”
Transformation and potential success
The Sharks and Stormers, with relatively young and enlightened coaches in Everitt and John Dobson, clearly understand that transformation equals improvement and success rather than stagnation and failure.
They are both meeting and exceeding targets on the field and they are also transforming their coaching setups. The Sharks have included former SA Schools A coach Phiwe Nomlomo as a skills coach and former Bok prop Etienne Fynn is their scrum consultant. The Stormers have Rito Hlungwani (forwards) and Hanyani Shimange (scrum) in their coaching set-up.
The Lions and Bulls are failing on both counts. Earlier this year SA Rugby president Mark Alexander was blunt in his assessment that some franchises needed to do more for racial transformation when it came to coaching.
“We’re not happy with the makeup of the franchise coaching teams, even though I’m happy with the look of the Springbok coaching group,” Alexander said when he unveiled Jacques Nienaber as the new Bok coach.
“All the coaches that have come through into the Bok set-up are from our system. We have to put pressure on our PRO14 and Super Rugby franchises because they’re not bringing through the coaches.”
Coaching transformation is well behind playing transformation, which means it has a long way to go. But the Sharks and Stormers are at least making significant strides.
At full strength, the Sharks are fielding six black players in their backline and have up to four black forwards in the starting lineup. Their style of play has also been transformative. They counter-attack with pace, vision and skill, traits that are largely a result of the skillsets their key players possess.
Springbok No 8 Sikhumbuzo Notshe has been a revelation with his linking play between the forwards and the backs. He has always been a skilful ball player – even when he was at the Stormers. But Everitt and his coaching staff have really played to Notshe’s strengths, making him the focal point of their transition from attack to defence.
Am, one of the revelations of Rugby World Cup 2019, has been made captain for 2020, which is another sign of the Sharks’ commitment to transformation. Coetzee though, argues that they did not make Am captain, he virtually assumed the role through his natural leadership.
“I know it’s easy to say now that things are going well, but we didn’t make Lukhanyo Am captain. He was chosen by his peers because he is a natural leader in a team with several strong leaders. Lukhanyo is simply an unbelievable human being.
“His pass to Makazole Mapimpi in the World Cup final (for the Boks’ first-ever RWC final try, which Am could have scored himself) showed how unselfish he is by nature, which is the essence of leadership. If everything is underpinned by culture, your leader will reflect it.”
Everitt’s selection as head coach after only a few Currie Cup seasons in the bank was a risk. But for Coetzee, the coach mirrored his own progressive thinking and outlook.
Both understand that winning is the only currency elite sports teams deal in, but both also understand that to win requires total commitment to a designated gameplan even when there are setbacks. There could have been several defeats for the Sharks given their tough schedule, which included their four-match Australasian tour inside the first five weeks. They returned from that tour with three wins from four matches – a 75% winning ratio. Traditionally, over the previous 24 years of Super Rugby, the Sharks have only won 33% of matches outside South Africa.
They didn’t only win though, they won playing some breathtaking rugby. The skills of Notshe, fullback Aphelele Fassi, wings Mapimpi, S’bu Nkosi and Madosh Tambwe, flyhalf Curwin Bosch, scrumhalf Sanele Nohamba as well as Am have been showcased to appreciative audiences globally.
“We had to fix a lot of relationships here over the past year,” Coetzee says. “We drew up rules of engagement between the players, coaches and administration and built a culture where everyone bought in. A good culture is not a soft culture. It’s an environment where there is accountability married to high performance. If you draw a pyramid of culture, ‘result’ is usually at the top, underpinned by all these other factors.
“But we decided to remove ‘result’ from the top of the chart because we believed that with the right culture we had set up, and with the talent in the team, we will win far more than we lose. We had to understand that we couldn’t question the path we have chosen if we lose two or three games in a row. We have to believe in the culture we set and that the results will follow.”
So far, so good for a team that is displaying everything that is right about transformation, in every sense of the word. DM
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