I can remember well covering Natal Sharks rugby in the 1990s – they were the team of the decade with four Currie Cup titles – and how we used to tut-tut at teams like the Lions because down in Durban we were the best both on and off the field, in terms of administration and brand marketing.
Things have obviously changed and the Lions are leading the way for South African rugby, while the Sharks don’t look like adding to their 2010 and 2013 Currie Cup crowns any time soon, never mind claiming that elusive Super Rugby title. And they are embroiled in the unseemliest of off-field squabbles, one that is straight out of the Louis Luyt book of skulduggery.
The actions of KZN Rugby Union president Graham Mackenzie would appear to be obvious grounds for his removal from his post. This week it was revealed that he was involved in a dirty tricks campaign that included trying to get journalists to publish a prepared article he or someone close to him had written discrediting former CEO and major critic Brian van Zyl under their own bylines. Unfortunately a blogger eventually took the bait and has subsequently been exposed and disgraced.
It would be premature to suggest Mackenzie is another Cheeky Watson waiting to happen because there is no proof of any financial impropriety. Then again, we can’t be entirely sure because for the first time in the KZNRU’s history the financial statements were not ready to be presented to the board or the clubs at the AGMs in April.
But that sort of maladministration inevitably gives birth to speculation and rumours, one just doesn’t expect the president of the union to be involved in spreading misinformation.
The Sharks have been hit by the economic downturn just like all the other franchises, but they have not been helped by the new broom that was wielded by John Smit when he replaced Van Zyl as CEO in 2013 when Mackenzie and chairman of the board Stephen Saad took over control of the Sharks in the boardroom. Some leading Natal rugby figures are apparently still nursing the knife wounds in the back.
While Smit secured several lucrative sponsorships for the Sharks, by getting rid of so many experienced staff members, people who have made an immense contribution to KZN rugby, he caused turmoil in the Kings Park offices. Never mind sacking coach John Plumtree, who it must be remembered had failed to win Super Rugby despite having a powerhouse side full of Springboks, it was the clear-out of people like Piet Strydom, Hans Scriba, Garth Giles and Rudolf Straeuli which raised eyebrows. And inevitably led to allegations Smit was just bringing in his old buddies both on and off the field.
Straeuli was the commercial manager and, ironically, it is the Lions who have now been reinvigorated by his acumen as CEO.
Transparency is the only way to avoid Sharks rugby being plunged into a hole like Eastern Province currently find themselves in, or a scandal like Cricket South Africa found themselves embroiled in during the Gerald Majola days.
SuperSport, as a major player on the Sharks board, have a vital role to play. But so do the clubs, who have a right to hold Mackenzie to account for his actions.
Van Zyl has made a disturbing allegation, however, that Mackenzie has built a devoted power base for himself by adding a raft of smaller clubs to the leagues, leading to a number of mismatches.
Either way, it is time a bright light was shone on the affairs of KwaZulu-Natal rugby to ensure that they can return to being a powerhouse of the South African game.