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Sharks owe Van Zyl debt of gratitude

  • 18 Jun 2013

Brian van Zyl did an excellent job as Sharks CEO during his 19 years in charge, writes MIKE GREENAWAY in response to SA Rugby magazine editor Simon Borchardt's column last week.

Perhaps the biggest accolade Brian van Zyl enjoys is that he is hugely respected amongst his rival CEOs in this country for the uncompromising manner in which he fights for his franchise. The Sharks are the brand they are today because of Van Zyl’s refusal to be bullied in the early days of professionalism by Louis Luyt and Rian Oberholzer, who wanted to rename the coastal franchise for Super Rugby purposes. The Sharks are the one franchise whose name has never changed.

Van Zyl has spent many a day in court over the years fighting – and usually winning  – contractual battles over players. He is a man who does not back down and has never stood back from a fight, whether it be with a rival union, Saru or Sanzar, and all for the benefit of the Sharks.

Van Zyl has a reputation of being fiercely loyal. It has been said that Van Zyl was taking a pot-shot at John Smit in last week’s press conference when he insisted that it be recorded that he had recommended a two-year extension of John Plumtree’s contract. He was not having a go at Smit – he was showing his loyalty to Plumtree. A recurring theme among the coaches who have come and gone under Van Zyl has been that he has backed them through thick and thin and always given them what they asked for.

It is alleged that Van Zyl has no interest in club rugby. This is hard to believe, given that prior to his appointment as CEO, he spent many years giving his free time to Durban Collegians as coach and chairman. The way the administration is structured in Durban, Van Zyl looks after the commercial arm, the Sharks, and it is Pete Smith, the CEO of the KZNRU, who is responsible for the health of club rugby. The fact that two historic clubs in Glenwood Old Boys and DHS Old Boys merged is mostly because there were too many first-division clubs within a 1km radius in Durban North –the third club being Crusaders – and that merger was being discussed years before Van Zyl took office.

The decline in season-ticket sales is an interesting one. There are a number of reasons why people don’t go to rugby in the numbers that they used to, but an important one to highlight is that Durban no longer has the numbers that it used to in terms of rugby supporters. It is underestimated how many people who would be typical season-ticket buyers have left the country or relocated from Durban for better work opportunities. For this reason, some years ago the Sharks began targeting the Indian community in Durban, with growing success.

It is worth pointing out that before Moses Mabhida Stadium was built, Van Zyl and the Sharks had  many discussions with the City of Durban about the way forward to 2010. The original plan was to upgrade Kings Park but the City then did an about-turn and went for the option of a new stadium.

Van Zyl has been reluctant to move the Sharks across the road because it makes no commercial sense. Under him, suites at Kings Park swelled to 350, a world record at the time, and the Sharks would lose this revenue if they become paying tenants at Moses Mabhida.

– Greenaway is a rugby writer for The Mercury newspaper.

Photo: Steve Haag/Gallo Images

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