Springbok rugby star John Smit is poised to make a spectacular return to the Shark Tank as the new chief executive of the Sharks, replacing veteran administrator Brian van Zyl.
Van Zyl is due to retire in February, but Smit could well take over from as early as July.
While the Sharks were tight-lipped on Tuesday about the development, top sources have confirmed that it is a fait accompli that the baton will be passed from one of the best administrators in rugby to one of the world’s most respected players.
Smit’s appointment will be ratified at a Sharks council meeting on Monday, but an official statement could well come out on Wednesday as the news breaks that the 35-year-old former Springbok captain will be the youngest executive officer of a South African franchise.
Smit is playing out his career with London club Saracens and, while he is due to play one final season with French club Toulon in 2014, the Sharks are understood to have negotiated his release.
There have been behind-the-scenes talks with Smit for some months, which will counter conjecture that there is a changing of the guard at The Sharks because of the recent wave of negative publicity stemming from violence and crime in and around the Kings Park precinct on match days, including the well-publicised murder of former Royal Marine Brett Williams.
Van Zyl has been heavily criticised for his handling of the crisis, firstly by not telling the public about the incident, and then for not responding quickly enough afterwards.
Letters poured into newspapers and discussions raged on radio calling for Van Zyl’s head because of his handling of the tragedy.
He responded last week by introducing an emergency number for fans in trouble, and expressing the Sharks’ outrage about the attack.
Van Zyl is highly regarded throughout South African rugby for the tough battles he has fought over a remarkable 20-year career that has often seen the Sharks win legal disputes with opposition unions over player contracts.
The battle-hardened Van Zyl has often taken on governing body the South African Rugby Union (Saru) to protect the interests of the Sharks, and regularly stood toe-to-toe with former union executive officer Riaan Oberholzer in the ’90s to protect “states rights”, as they would put it in American politics.
Van Zyl, who played 25 times as a rugged flanker for Natal in the ’70s after moving to Durban from Pretoria, took over as executive officer of the Natal Rugby Union in 1994, and with president Keith Parkinson transformed the amateur Natal rugby team into the professional Sharks in 1996.
The Sharks pioneered professional rugby in this country in the ’90s, and rival unions copied what the Sharks, in turn, had learnt from American Football and British soccer teams, such as Manchester United.
Van Zyl went to school at Pretoria Boys’ High, Smit’s old school, and they might well swop a proud smile when the fresh-faced Smit is ushered into the hot seat by his former boss.
Smit is one of the favourite sons of Kings Park, having played for the Sharks for 13 consecutive years. While in matric in Pretoria he approached the Bulls, but was shown the door and, around that time, the Sharks offered him a junior contract and a bursary to the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg.
In 2003 he was made Springbok captain and went on to break a multitude of records, including most Tests as captain (83) and most in total (111).
Former Springbok coach Jake White said that Smit’s longevity and success as a captain (a World Cup title, two Tri-Nations titles and a series win over the British and Irish Lions) was because of his humility, intelligence and unique ability to bond black, white, coloured and English and Afrikaans players and inspire them towards a common goal.
But the Sharks will also want Smit to take the franchise into a new era, to inject new blood and new ideas.
Smit was not contactable in London on Tuesday, but, before he left Durban to join Saracens last year, he said: “I am truly grateful for everything given to me by The Sharks and the Springboks, and I will return to pay back.
“Too often I see players leaving the game bitter. I have been treated like a king by the Sharks, like royalty by Saru.
“South Africa is my home. I love this country and I am its biggest patriot.”