Pups cut their teeth with the Jake White Sharks
There's an air of expectancy surrounding the Sharks ahead of this year's Super Rugby tournament, with a new chief executive and director.
The franchise has a new chief executive in John Smit and a new director of rugby in Jake White and it is not coincidental that they have been reunited after a successful Springbok World Cup campaign in 2007.
There has been less publicity about another subtle change in personnel, however. Etienne Fynn, the former Sharks and Springbok tighthead prop, has taken over from Hans Scriba as the head of the Sharks Academy. Scriba has moved to the Cape where he will be involved in managing the South African Rugby Union's (Saru) new academies.
Fynn has been part of the structures at the Sharks for five years and takes over a thriving business at an exciting time.
He says: "The Sharks team that won the Currie Cup final last year included 14 players who had been at the academy and, to date, 69 Sharks in all have come through the academy. Among the first intake were the likes of Stephen Sykes and Clyde Rathbone. Thulani Nteta was also an early student and he is now an employee of the academy as well as the conditioning coach of our Under-21s.
"Beast Mtawarira would probably still be in Zimbabwe if he hadn't come on tour to South Africa with Peterhouse. He was spotted, someone told the Sharks fitness coach – Barry Angus – to have a look at this guy, and on the back of that he was invited to the academy."
Nevertheless, when Smit took over the reins last year, one of the first things he said was that he needed to take a long look at the academy. The unspoken belief was that there was something wrong with it but Fynn says things have changed over the time Smit has been involved.
"It was more a case of being on the same page when he took over as chief executive. He's now more in sync and he understands what we do. Obviously he has a vision of where he wants the Sharks to go and the academy will be a part of that.
"But any changes would be through a consultative process because the fact of the matter is that we have a system that works: it produces a Marcell Coetzee, a Cobus Reinach, and the like."
It helps, of course, that Smit and Fynn played together in the front row for the Sharks and, briefly, the Springboks. "I'm five years older than John but we started playing for the first team at the same time because I was 26 when I made my debut. John made his Springbok debut against the USA in 2000, and we played together the following year against France and Italy.
"John has the unique ability to make people feel comfortable around him. That's what made him such a successful captain," Fynn said.
White was also involved with both the Sharks and the Springboks around the turn of the millennium.
Fynn says: "He appears to be the same person now as he was then. Perhaps time tempers you to an extent but he has a passion for the game and he knows what he wants.
"When Jake arrived last year, I was still coaching the Under-21s and he came to watch us train. We had a very good back line – [Stefan] Ungerer, [Robert] du Preez, [Tyler] Fisher – big, strong, quick boys – and I think he liked what he saw.
"André Esterhuizen joined the academy last year from Klerksdorp and Jake has brought him straight into the mix.
"I think the Sharks have an excellent chance to go all the way this year. We have a squad with depth – which is essential over such a long tournament – and it also has quality. Obviously you want to stay injury-free for as long as possible and it is about winning those close games, instead of losing them by two or three points.
"From a talent and conditioning point of view, most of the Super Rugby squads are pretty even, so what separates them is the intangible stuff like team spirit, playing for the guy next to you and the willingness not to give up in tough situations."
Much of that is inculcated from day one at the academy. It costs about R70 000 a year for a youth to attend but that includes all rugby, lunch, kit, conditioning and studies. The latter is a crucial aspect of the setup.
"We offer academic courses which are geared to the guy who wants to study while giving rugby a go, several of which are through Varsity College. Examples would be BCom marketing, marketing management, business principles, personal training and sports management.
"Some kids want more mainstream academic courses and we don't have a problem with that. Patrick Lambie is a classic example. He studied through Unisa while he was at the academy and he wrote his finals while he was on tour in Australia last year."
The hit rate is impressive, with up to 20 or 30 academy alumni a year joining professional rugby structures. Of those who don't make it, many move on to tertiary institutions and can be seen campaigning in the Varsity Cup on a Monday night. This Monday, there were seven ex-academy boys in the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU) side that beat Maties, one of whom, Chris Cloete, scored a hat trick of tries.
"There's no formal tie-up between the academy and NMMU, but it appears that they like the kind of people that we churn out," says Fynn.
"Some parents have very unrealistic expectations and that can be a difficult part of my job, but, even for kids who ultimately don't make it as professional rugby players, if they stay the full three years, you won't recognise them. They learn life skills, become men and they make friends for life."