Building a winning culture – from the bottom up

Written by Rob Otto (robdylan)

Posted in :Original Content, Sharks on 19 Jun 2013 at 11:17
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They say a fish rots from the head down, but I challenge you to find any fish that can survive for long with a well-developed head, but no body.

The fish, in this case, is a Shark. The head represents the first team, the be-all and end-all of the union’s focus for so long, often to the detriment of the wider rugby community; the structures, programs and feeder teams that are meant to keep the head healthy. The Sharks, in other words, have employed a top-down strategy, with the mantra that a winning senior team is all that really matters and that with a strong brand, you’ll never want for top players. That strategy has lead to just two Currie Cup trophies in 16 years. Worse, that strategy has driven a rift between those at the head of the Sharks pile and the wider rugby community in the province, to the detriment of all.

Let’s compare and contrast with the Blue Bulls – a union we all love to hate but have grown to grudgingly admire as hands-down the most professional, organised and, above-all, successful setup in the South African context over the last few years. Their approach, as I understand it, could not be more different with a bottom-up strategy employed to ensure that all stakeholders are aligned to the goals of the first team, with an emphasis on common approaches and styles of play – and a strong focus on success – at all levels from schoolboy through to Super Rugby.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I remain skeptical about the Bulls, in their current guise. While I believe that their intentions and their approach are right, I doubt whether the execution of their strategy is as good as it could be. That’s not really what this is about, though, because for the Sharks, under John Smit, to flourish and reclaim their place at the very top of the South African rugby style, their aim must be not learn what they can from the Bulls, while innovating and improving on it, rather than simply hoping to slavishly imitate it.

Smit and his right-hand man, Brenden Venter, will have a number of balls to juggle but fortunately for them, the picture right at the top is nowhere near as bad as some may paint it. They inherit a squad that has contested three finals in the last 18 months and that surely cannot be far from winning a trophy again. While it is right that the performances of that first team – and the players that it comprises – should take up a fair bit of initial focus, they need to ensure that they spend just as much time looking at rugby structures across the province, with particular emphasis on the school, academy and age-group teams. Further investment in talent identification, mentoring and coaching are a given, but perhaps more important will be an open and inclusive approach, in order to unite the “warring factions” that have been created by the old guard’s top-down approach.

The goal simply has to be a Sharks union that attracts, develops and retains the best talent through a well-structured and successful youth program. While we cannot magically “create” a Varsity cup team in the region, there is no reason why the top schools, Sharks Academy and strong club set-up can’t be integrated into a sensible and successful feeder system to provide a steady flow of well-developed players – with a winning mentality – from which the senior coaches can select. This will remove the need to “panic buy” when there is an injury and will result in a far healthier and happier setup overall, minus the continual infighting that continues to divide the KZN rugby family.


  • Regarding the Bulls, I personally know one of their schoolboy coaches who also plays for one of their community sides. There is a lot of complaints and unhappiness in those structures. It’s not as rosy a picture as we are often lead to believe.

  • Comment 1, posted at 19.06.13 11:44:50 by vanmartin Reply
    Friend of Sharksworld Author
  • @vanmartin (Comment 1) : like I said – they have the right plan, but their execution of it isn’t good enough.

  • Comment 2, posted at 19.06.13 11:47:26 by robdylan Reply
    Competition Winner Administrator
  • @robdylan (Comment 2) : Hearts and minds – that’s the key to a successful feeder system. Few are as qualified as John Smit for that particular objective.

  • Comment 3, posted at 19.06.13 11:58:09 by vanmartin Reply
    Friend of Sharksworld Author
  • I know very little to squat about the politics and goings on within KZN club rugby but from the outside it (club rugby) looks in fine health.

  • Comment 4, posted at 19.06.13 11:58:53 by Salmonoid the Subtle Reply
    Friend of Sharksworld
    Salmonoid the Subtle
  • In reply to the first comment about complaints and unhappiness in the Bulls structures, in my opinion it boils down to the fact that players that are overlooked for spots in teams will always be unhappy, no matter how healthy the structures are.

    If a union can do well in the varsity cup, vodacom cup, Super Rugby, Currie Cup (senior side and u/21 and u/19), Craven week, and national amateur competitions and consistently so, then their recipe is worth copying.

  • Comment 5, posted at 19.06.13 12:14:43 by walter van Lions World Reply

    walter van Lions World
  • @walter van Lions World (Comment 5) : thanks you Walter. And I agree

  • Comment 6, posted at 19.06.13 12:54:52 by robdylan Reply
    Competition Winner Administrator
  • @walter van Lions World (Comment 5) : These specific complaints have nothing to do with team selections. The unhappiness stems from cronyism, incompetent/lazy people in leadership positions with in the development structures and lack of support from the union in general. Basically, the guy is doing this (in his own time, on his own dime) for a love of the game and union only to find that same union working against it’s own stated objectives.

  • Comment 7, posted at 19.06.13 13:34:36 by vanmartin Reply
    Friend of Sharksworld Author
  • Nice article.

    @vanmartin (Comment 7) :
    The ability of the Bulls to attract and retain both new and established players and support staff means that your guy’s experience appears the exception rather than the norm.

  • Comment 8, posted at 19.06.13 13:46:19 by Big Fish Reply
    Big Fish
  • @Big Fish (Comment 8) : Very possible but something to keep in mind is that there are lots of people that serve that union with something of a religious fervour despite its shortcomings. Ultimately, the point I’m trying to make is that they aren’t the gold standard (in my opinion) and the Sharks should aim to improve on their model instead of merely duplicating it.

  • Comment 9, posted at 19.06.13 14:12:40 by vanmartin Reply
    Friend of Sharksworld Author
  • @vanmartin (Comment 9) : yes, agree. And I tried to say that 🙂

  • Comment 10, posted at 19.06.13 14:15:44 by robdylan Reply
    Competition Winner Administrator
  • What’s the story with Varsity Cup in Natal? They have a university or two there don’t they? With help from the Sharks and the clubs, surely they should be able to field a strong team pretty easily.

  • Comment 11, posted at 20.06.13 00:36:45 by fyndraai Reply
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