I am totally behind empowering players and allowing them to lead the way in terms of the direction and culture of a team, but there are times when too much player power can become a bad thing.
Knowing Sharks director of rugby Gary Gold reasonably well, I know that he is the sort of coach who will look to empower the players, treat them as adults and allow them to plot their own destiny. But it seems the Sharks are embroiled in a perfect storm at the moment and it is showing not only in their results but in the shocking lack of discipline their senior players are exhibiting.
The Sharks are a team dominated by senior Springboks, a lot of older players who are eyeing one last World Cup before earning their pensions in Europe or Japan. This strong core of players totally lost respect for Jake White and it was their rebellion (which probably isn’t too strong a word given the stories I heard this week about what happened on tour last year) that forced CEO John Smit to release the World Cup-winning coach.
Gold will be well aware of his predecessor’s fate but his efforts to refresh the team, bring in some new blood, are hampered by the poor recruitment that has happened at the Sharks in the last couple of years.
Signing players like Matt Stevens, Mouritz Botha and Marco Wentzel merely strengthens the “old boys club” and, people being people, nobody likes the feeling that they’re about to be replaced by someone younger, so they cling on to whatever power or influence they have. Because most of these players spent their formative years elsewhere, their attachment to the Sharks’ brand and badge is perhaps not as strong as that of players like Pat Lambie or Marcell Coetzee, a duo to emerge with credit so far this troubled season.
A major part of the Sharks’ problems is that their academy is not functioning properly, its emphasis is more on making money than providing a pipeline of players for the franchise. Wealthy parents of kids who only played 3rd XV rugby at school are getting entries for their children, which only lowers the standard of the academy.
The Sharks must rediscover their soul, return to their roots and start looking closer to home for their answers. The best Natal/Sharks sides were made up of a core of players who studied in the province – think John Allan, Rod Gould (Glenwood), Mark Andrews, Tommy Bedford, John Smit (Natal University), Steve Atherton (Pinetown), Tim Cocks (Westville), Wayne Fyvie, Gary Teichmann (Hilton), Trevor Halstead (Kearsney), Henry Honiball (Estcourt), Butch James, Keith Oxlee, Joel Stransky, Jeremy Thomson, Craig Jamieson (Maritzburg College), Andre Joubert (Ladysmith), Dick Muir (Kokstad), Hugh Reece-Edwards (Northlands), Andre Snyman (Newcastle) Rob Hankinson (Michaelhouse) and Lood Muller (Voortrekker).
And the standard of schools’ rugby in KwaZulu-Natal has risen considerably in the last 30 years.
The senior players must either buy into the new vision or go elsewhere, but they certainly have roles to play in restoring Sharks rugby to even keel.
The happy days must return to Kings Park and that also involves tough decisions for Smit and the board.
Conversely, a bit more player power would probably be a good thing when it comes to South African cricket.
Although there probably won’t be any clarity on the whole Philander/Abbott selection issue any time soon, the deafening silence of the players has been telling.
If all the speculation that there had been a late, unpopular change to the team for the World Cup semi-final was totally wide of the mark, then surely either Philander or Abbott, AB de Villiers or some other player would have been quick to stand up and say it was absolute nonsense?
As someone very close to the team said to me: “Where there’s smoke there will always be fire”.
The day will come when, with a lucrative IPL contract in his pocket, a player makes a public stand, but at the moment there would be too many repercussions.
The last time a player protested against interference in selection – the courageous Charl Langeveldt – he was mercilessly bullied by the same person who is now the lead independent director of the Cricket South Africa board.