Standing in the middle of the famous turf at Kings Park in Durban, Ed Coetzee points to the spot where Jeremy Guscott landed his famous dropped goal to win the Test series for the Lions against the Springboks in 1997.
“Yeah, it was at that end,” he sighs, still wincing at the memory. “Jeremy Guscott,” he adds, with a shake of his head, as if the name itself was enough to capture the moment.
Close your eyes and it is almost possible to imagine the “Lions, Lions” chant resonating from the sheer face of the Eastern Upper Stand that had been added for the 1995 World Cup.
In contrast, across to the left is the spot where, 12 years later, Tendai “The Beast” Mtawarira first wreaked havoc with the Lions scrum, inflicting such a torrid time on Phil Vickery, the Lions tighthead, that it has become etched into Springbok folklore.
Yes, the grand old stadium, even in its emptiness on a cloudy Monday in South Africa’s winter, is still brimming with iconic Lions moments.
Coetzee, the impressive chief executive of the Sharks, also points proudly to the newly-installed children’s play area behind the posts where Guscott landed that kick, and behind the other posts is a “beach club” complete with a swimming pool and sand, and a bar that turns into a nightclub after games in normal times.
And, yet, these are anything but normal times. Wednesday was meant to be one of the biggest nights, in every sense, for the Sharks since 2009. A crowd of more than 50,000 supporters had been expected for the return of the Lions for the match against the Sharks.
Instead, the game will be played behind closed doors, 350 miles away in Johannesburg because of the decision to reschedule the tour to two locations because of the Covid restrictions.
“It would have been an incredible occasion,” adds Coeztee, a former South Africa Under-21 loosehead prop who played at the Sharks for five years before moving to France, playing for both Bayonne and then Biarritz.
Yet the 41-year-old is already looking to the future. He is not able to travel to watch the Sharks play on Wednesday, as it would have meant entering their “bubble” last week, but is advancing plans to transform the Sharks into one of the leading brands in world rugby, with their sights set firmly on Europe.
The Sharks, along with the other leading South Africa former Super Rugby sides, are joining the Pro 14 next season in what has been rebranded as the United Rugby Championship. The Sharks will also be entered into the European Challenge Cup, where they could face the likes of Saracens.
To prepare the club for the challenge of playing away in some of the most intimidating venues in Europe, he is leaning on his experience of playing days in France.
Ed Coetzee plans to transform the Sharks into one of the leading brands in world rugby
Credit: GETTY IMAGES
“We have got to change our mindset and our recruitment policy, including coaching,” adds Coetzee. The Sharks have enlisted the services of former Saracens director of rugby Brendan Venter as a coaching consultant, Georgia hooker Akvsenti Giorgadze as their scrum coach from La Rochelle and Leinster academy manager Noel McNamara, while recruitment has included the star signing of Springboks captain Siya Kolisi in February.
“We are bringing in a lot of that European knowledge because otherwise, I think we will get humbled quite quickly, to be brutally honest with you,” he adds.
And yet the greatest change appears to be coming off the pitch. The American consortium MVM Holdings has recently taken a 51 per cent share in the franchise, while Roc Nation, one of the world’s leading marketing companies – set up by American rapper Jay-Z – are also on side.
“I had Michael Yormark, the president of Roc Nation, at my house and he was asking how he could help. I told him about how Covid had robbed people of so much joy in South Africa,” adds Coetzee.
“So, for our first game back with crowds, I told him I wanted to have the biggest party that Durban has ever seen. He then says … ‘I have an idea!’ So, Michael gets on his phone and all of a sudden up pops this picture of a guy in his golf cart with his cap back to front. He said, ‘Hey, my brother.’ I was speaking to this guy and I had no idea who he was. I do now!
“He said: ‘I’ll come to the motherland, cool! But I just want to tell you. I am very, very expensive.’
“Michael then told me it was DJ Khaled … and I realised there and then that I had to grow out of my little box. I was speaking to this guy and he was probably one of the biggest artists in the world!
“One of the mindset changes I and people at the Sharks had to make is that in South Africa, often you just survive. But that mindset has to be shelved. Everything that the Americans want is big, bold and brave.
“And so you get Roc Nation in and it is big, bold and brave – in italics, underlined and a font size of 40. And that is what we need in South Africa and they are really helping us from a marketing, strategic and brand point of view.
“The American consortium has brought in the American way of thinking – but keeping our values and culture intact. It’s really exciting and something that South Africa sport has never had. For us going to Europe – this timing is perfect.”