For eight standout 18-year-old rugby players a new chapter in their lives is about to begin. Every year the Sharks only contract between 8 and 12 players. These players are carefully picked based on two criteria, the players’ individual rugby ability and the future needs of the Union. Yes, the Sharks don’t necessarily go after the best players on the board, they actually try to work out where their future senior team positional needs will lie and plan succession on this basis. The awarding of a contract is the end result of a meticulous process that combines several elements including careful co-ordination of these predetermine needs as mentioned above, many scouting man-hours to identify talent, crucial experienced-eye evaluation of future potential that players hold, player character assessments and finally persuading players and their parents that their futures lie in Durban and not at another Union. The Sharks want to make the right investment decisions and usually all the effort put in pays off. They occasionally get it wrong but the Sharks have a close to 80% success rate in developing contracted juniors into Currie Cup, Superugby and even Springbok players down the line.
So statistically these eight young men will find it harder to fail than to success. This is not to say that they do not have some serious graft ahead of them. In fact the Sharks brains-trust believes that in order to make it to the senior team, it takes 50% talent and 50% hard work. This is why the homework done by the Sharks is so thorough. Just being a school talent is not good enough. Character and in particular the determination to success in an out of school environment where self-disciple plays a major role is often what separates the best from the rest.
Occasionally the identified players do reside in KwaZulu-Natal but in their quest to sign the best possible candidates to meet their future needs, few opportunities exist to give preference to players simply because they are locals. This is the nature of a modern day professional sport. Gone are the days when a player runs out for the team he supported as a child. The recruitment drive is geared towards identifying the best suitable players, irrespective of where they reside, play their rugby or what provincial team they support growing up. Likewise the true professional goes where his interests are best served. This is why it is no longer unusual to see players from the heart of the Western Cape or Pretoria taking up Sharks contracts. Even Afrikaans speaking youngsters that converse in broken English and those that come from the small towns find the predominately English, modern big city adjustment surprisingly easy to make.
A large part of the reason for the ease at which this lifestyle adjustment is made comes down to the Sharks management of the situation as well. Once in Durban, these chosen few players are placed into special private residences, usually with only two other players and under the care of older ladies with years of experience in looking after Sharks stars when they were younger. Off the field the new players get made to feel at home from Day 1 and of the few players that do leave when their contracts expire at the end of two or three years, just about all agree that the thing they miss most is the close family-like friendships formed and the wonderful vibe.
Contacted players automatically join of the high performance elite training group at the Sharks Academy where they receive specialised training. Their contracts contain both performance and academic clauses, which means that in order to receive the full pay, players have to show commitment and meet certain minimum requirements in both rugby and in the classroom.
The whole Sharks setup is professional to the nth degree.
This year the eight new contracted players are:
- Jean-Luc du Plessis (Paarl Boys High). The son of Springbok leftwing Carel is a major major coup for the Sharks. Somehow stolen from under the noses of the WP fraternity and with the talent to have just as easily been able to pursue a career in cricket, du Plessis plies his trade at flyhalf where he is known for his vision and attacking skills.
- Neil Maritz (Paarl Boys High). The lightning quick yet classy outside centre spent a great deal of 2012 sidelined with injury. His talent was noticed by the Sharks before that though and what on the surface appears to be a gamble on a player that did not really prove himself in 2012, was actually an easy decision for the Sharks to make. The 110m hurdles athlete has good hands, can put a teammate into the gap as if it was second nature and is no slouch on defence either. He has been likened to Jean de Villiers.
- Andre Esterhuizen (Klerksdorp). At 1.91m and 104kg this fullback who can also play centre clearly already has the size. More importantly he possesses the skills needed to make it. It won’t be surprising if he gets fast-tracked. He is already being compared to Francois Steyn. Esterhuizen represented the SA Sevens team in 2011 while still in Grade 11 and was expected to walk into the SA Schools team last year. He however got suspended for 6-months for using a racist term. It has been a setback to his school career and may still have a bearing on his future. He has paid the price for that incident but it’s more important that he’s learnt a life lesson from it and has since expanded his comfort zone. So here is possibly a case where character will be a far greater determined of success than size or skills. A huge talent nonetheless.
- Sandile Kubeka (Kearsney). The SA Schools centre had a bit of a dull Craven Week by his high standards. Based on his regular schools season form he might well have been a strong contender for the KZN rugby player of the year and deserved the reward of a national under-18 cap. In fact he went on to win a local annual sports hero award. Kubeka used his three years of first team experience to manipulate defences, proving to be excellent at combining speed over a short distance with strength in close contact to punch holes and get in behind opponents. He was able to pick up the tempo in big games. When he was not scoring tries for Kearsney, he often had an active hand in making them happen.
- Bart le Roux (Framesby). The 1.91m, 116kg tighthead prop was part of the unbeaten EP Craven Week team in 2012. A year before that le Roux represented the SA Academy team against France. He is a huge unit. In terms of scrumming and the work ethic, the Sharks really liked what they saw. Le Roux is able to get around the park and thrives on being in the thick of the action.
- Stefan van Schalkwyk (Oakdale). At 1.87m and 122kg, on paper the tighthead prop’s dimensions immediately suggests he will be a handful at scrum-time but should struggle to keep up in open play. Well part of this is right, he is an asset in the scrum but for a young guy of his size, his mobility and even his hands are exceptional. He packs some good aggression as well.
- Marné Coetzee (Glenwood). Coetzee made the 2011 SA Schools team playing Craven Week for the Blue Bulls while attending Waterkloof. He moved to Durban later the year after accepting a contract to play for the Sharks once his schooling was completed. This paved the way for him to compete in the 2012 ABSA under-19 Currie Cup where he left a lasting impression. The tighthead prop now finds himself in the Baby Bokke under-20 team and is still on track to realise a dream of playing at the Junior World Championships in France later this year. His success has been based on sound scrumming and his willingness to get involved in all aspects of loose play as a ballcarrier, support player, cleaner outer and defender. He also never seems to run out of energy.
- Gideon Koegelenberg (Hugenote). The 2012 SA Schools lock of 1.99m and 110kg is the perfect player in just about every respect. He has a great attitude, unbelievable high workrate, top draw handling skills, ball-carrying skills that are second to none and leadership qualities to boot. The Sharks saw so much good in him that they flew him in to Durban to be part of the Sharks under-19 Currie Cup campaign for a crucial part of the 2012 season. He made an immediate impact and it showed in the team’s results.