Sitting among the Sharks Academy intake of 2021, all wearing face masks, it was difficult to distinguish individuals. Except, on closer inspection, the one with the sprinkles of grey in his freshly combed hair.
“I’m like Scarra now,” sighed the 2019 Rugby World Cup-winning captain, Siyamthanda Kolisi. Indeed, Siyabonga “Scarra” Ntubeni’s weathered locks put most grandparents to shame, but Kolisi now finds himself as the wise one among many who are eager to learn from him and his ways.
As he sat listening intently to Sharks chief executive Eduard Coetzee explaining what it means to be a Shark to the newest pups in the pack, Kolisi’s words of feeling like it was his first day at school again didn’t seem out of place. This is a new beginning, an intriguing, fresh chapter in a story that seems to get richer with each retelling.
As one of the most marketable sports stars in the world, Kolisi could have gone to play anywhere.
Ultimately, he chose to become a Shark and be part of the new age that Coetzee is leading.
“We started building something special two years ago, and today is an important step in the right direction,” Coetzee said of the Sharks’ vision and Kolisi becoming a part of it. Coetzee, a former player, bridges the gap between players and management seamlessly. One senses that for all the reasons Kolisi provided as fodder for moving from Western Province and the mountain to the Sharks, working with a progressive chief executive was high up there.
“For us, it was a very easy decision,” Coetzee said of bringing the Springbok captain to Durban. “When people with like-minded views meet, often the discussions are very simple.”
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the Sharks have also recently agreed an equity deal with MVM Holdings, a United States-based consortium with strong South African links. The deal is made sweeter still by the Sharks also striking an agreement with Roc Nation Sports, the brainchild of hip-hop mogul Jay-Z, which happens to be Kolisi’s management company.
“When people from my community first heard of me signing up with Roc Nation, they were even more excited than I was,” Kolisi recalled. “You’ve got to understand what it means to people. We grew up listening to Jay-Z’s music, so they all know exactly who he is. They also know that he grew up in tough conditions and used his talent to make a better life.”
Given Kolisi’s international stature, the assumption was that the captaincy might be part of the package. But the Sharks have confirmed that Lukhanyo Am will continue to lead the franchise and Kolisi will focus solely on playing his best rugby again.
Coetzee said it was imperative for players to know exactly where they stand, and he has had conversations with his playing staff to address any concerns they might have about their futures. The commercial deals completed by the franchise have caught the attention of many, and players have watched the speculation around big-name players looking at Kings Park as an intriguing career option.
“We’ve invested heavily in the youth, so it would be counterproductive for us to discard that all of a sudden,” Coetzee said by way of clarifying the speculation.
Struggling after a good start
Kolisi was a marquee signing because of what he brings to the table. Coetzee made no secret of how highly he rates the national captain as a leader and a rugby player. There were persistent murmurs about his 2020 form and the flanker was frank about his shortcomings.
Conditioning, injury and the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on his family all played their role in a tough year on the field, he explained. There were tears when he left Newlands for the last time. There had to be, given that he swelled from a schoolboy into a leader of men in an 11-year stay with Western Province and the Stormers.
Coming to the Sharks – and their lofty ambitions – is a personal challenge for Kolisi. His family will join him in due course in Durban, but he will go it alone for the first few months. So, in a sense, it was fitting that he mentioned the feeling of a first day of school, and took in Coetzee’s impassioned speech on how players are expected to act as Sharks: with ubuntu. He explained the concept of always offering the open hand and what it symbolises.
Having conversations in the light, Coetzee elaborated, was the only way you could see colour. And by colour, the charismatic Sharks leader meant the unique perspective, personality and background that each individual brings from where they come. The Sharks way has often been referenced in the past few years, but Coetzee and his approach are testimony to that approach.
“We know we are seen as pioneers in some regards and we are comfortable with that.”
He added that he preferred the term “positive disruptors”. In a game that still leans ominously towards traditional conservatism, Coetzee and his franchise have not been afraid to take risks, seek new paths and, ultimately, do just about everything differently.
At the core, though, he insisted that partnering with Roc Nation and the equity deal with MVM Holdings would not mean sweeping changes to the business model. “We are not going to change who we are. We are excited to grow our culture and amplify our engagements.”
As a former player, Coetzee knows only too well the enduring value of tradition. Importantly, key players in the MVM Holdings stable happen to be Sharks fans. “That is a huge plus for us. Another massive point we agree on is development, particularly in the Eastern Cape,” Coetzee said.
It pains him to see Border rugby under administration. The Eastern Cape has been a production line for Sharks excellence for decades and Coetzee wants to ensure that the bond on the east coast gets even tighter.
“I would like nothing more than to see Border rugby get back up again. It’s a legacy of the days when the Sharks were called the Coastal Sharks and those unions fell under the franchise. We want to help empower Border rugby again,” he said.
Swimming in different waters
Along with that commitment, the Sharks have the sojourn in Europe to look towards. Having played in Europe, Coetzee can’t wait to see players taking on new challenges. “It is a massive opportunity for these players. Playing on those unique European club grounds, hopefully with passionate fans back in the stands, is an incredible experience,” he recalled.
The breakaway from Super Rugby is a move away from the familiar, but as Coetzee points out, Europe is closer to home. “It is an easier commute and a lot closer to our time zone. It is just a really exciting time for our players, who have had to endure a lot,” he said.
When the world went into lockdown in 2020, the Sharks were playing some of their best rugby. Many assumed that Covid-19 was but a speed hump and that the search for a maiden Super Rugby title would soon resume. A year on, there is considerable perspective.
“This past year has been really tough. Every one of us knows someone affected by the pandemic,” Coetzee said soberly. “Guys have lost family members or friends. Some young players had to endure lockdown alone in a flat, unable to go home. The players we signed from the EP Kings had lost their jobs. These are the realities, and there has been incredible resilience shown by these young men.”
The family dynamic in the franchise has never been more severely tested as it has in the past year, but Coetzee reckons they are better for it. At the end of his address to the academy intake, with first-day scholar Kolisi in tow, Coetzee reminded those who hadn’t noticed that there was a small rock under each chair. Some observers had assumed the rocks had been placed by, well, Roc Nation.
Not at all.
The rock, Coetzee explained, was personal to each player and for them to write something of importance to them on. Those rocks, isivivane in isiZulu, are then placed with all the rocks that have come before, emphasising the bigger picture of the franchise and its commitment to leave no stone unturned on the path to glory.
Some might call the gesture corny. The Sharks simply call it culture. They certainly do things differently at the Sharks, but the intrigue around the place is unmistakable. As Jay-Z might say, there are new rocks in the building.