The writer has been covering Sharks and Springbok rugby for 17 years and in that time I have seldom encountered one of my journalistic colleagues getting it as grieviously wrong as the Beeld man who effectively labelled Keegan Daniel a fascist and a zenophobe.
The inference in the scurrilous report was that Daniel dislikes Afrikaans-speaking people and as leader of the Sharks wants fewer of them in the Sharks squad.
It is a remarkable accusation to make considering Daniel is the captain of the Sharks because he is both popular and a populist. His coach, John Plumtree, knows this because before he last year settled on a successor to John Smit (at Super Rugby level) and Stefan Terblanche (Currie Cup) he consulted with the senior players at the Sharks, almost all of whom were Afrikaans-speaking, as to who they wanted as captain.
Bismarck du Plessis, as Afrikaans as they come, was another leading contender but the senior leadership group to a man chose Daniel, making it an easy choice for Plumtree in the end.
No wonder the coach was furious when Daniel was accused of being fed-up with the Afrikaner majority in the squad.
I am fortunate to be covering the Sharks’ current tour and have seldom seen a group more content with each other’s company. They are hugely disappointed with the results, make no mistake, but they are not turning on each other.
And while they understand that the old chestnut of “divisions in the camp” inevitably crops up in the media when a team is on a losing streak, they don’t have to like it, and if anything they are becoming a more closely knit group as a result of the unsubstantiated rumours.
The fact of the matter regarding the demographics of the Sharks is that the team has been turning incrementally Afrikaans just about since Ian McIntosh recruited Vleis Visagie from the Free State in the late ‘80s.
Until now, nobody has noticed or cared, thankfully, because why would it matter? Right now, if you really want to know, the 26-man touring squad consists of three Zulus, two Xhosas, three English-speaking whites and … 18 Afrikaners.
There was a similar demographic this time last year when the Sharks made the Super Rugby final and the Currie Cup final. It did not matter then, so why should it matter now, just because the team is losing?!
The bottom line is the unifying force of the Sharks jersey and the common good of the team. This is something that the current coach, John Plumtree, feels strongly about. The New Zealander has coached and won titles and made many a final with Swansea (Wales), Wellington (in his native country) and the Sharks after having had a long career as a player in New Zealand and South Africa (with Natal).
He has been around the block a few times and has learned that what matters is the jersey and its history, the legacy left by those that have gone before and, if a player is not committed to the traditions, he will be gone under Plum, whether he is pink, blue or speaks Japanese. That is how it should be, obviously.
The values that Plumtree holds dear are the values he recognised in Daniel when he settled on making him captain.
As Daniel himself told me not long after he was appointed captain: ““How I live my life and carry myself in the public eye, and treat other people, is very important to me. I can honestly say that I would not be where I am today if did not have a spiritual grounding.”
“For me captaincy is as much about winning rugby games as it is about developing people and, in fact, the more you invest in the well-being of the players, the more games you are going to win. In a squad you have a cross-section of guys, all of whom go through ups and downs on and off the field. I just feel that if there is contentment, then you will get more out of a player.
“If you are performance driven and are just worried about a number at the end of the day, you will be successful in the short term, but if you are people driven, and show a genuine interest in their welfare ahead of the result, they will want to produce the result and you have a better chance of getting it.”
Heartfelt words, indeed, and the players I have spoken to this week have testified that this is how Daniel conducts himself.
An Afrikaans-hater? It just does not add up …
By Mike Greenaway
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