The South African side have had their fair share of non-South African fly-halves through the years
The legacy of foreign tens at the Sharks
Gregor Townsend remembers just how sharp the contrast was when he went from training one day with the Borders to pitching up at the Sharks. From training in -10º on an AstroTurf hockey pitch on 31 December, he flew out that night and arrived in South Africa on 1 January 2004 to 35º heat.
A shock to the system, no doubt. The Scottish playmaker was by no means the first foreigner to make his way to Durban. Kiwi back-five forward John Plumtree made a name for himself at the Sharks in the late Eighties and Nineties. French fly-half Thierry Lacroix also featured for the Sharks in the Currie Cup, while Murray Mexted and others spent time playing in Natal. However, by the Noughties, things were a little different.
At some point this season we should see Argentina’s Joaquin Diaz Bonilla take to fly-half there, playing a pivot that has been manned at times post-Millennium by Tony Brown, Juan Martin Hernández and Andy Goode.
But in early 2004, with Townsend, was that the beginning of a very modern relationship between South Africa’s Sharks and match-running tens from other nations?
“The reason (the move) came around is the Springboks had a poor World Cup in 2003, and part of the review was ‘We need more foreign influence in our country’,” Townsend explains of his move. “England had won a World Cup with a lot of foreign coaches and players in their Championship. So Rudi Straeuli managed to get that through, as before that you couldn’t play Super Rugby over that period as a foreigner.
“So the timing worked really well for me and I was no longer able to play for Scotland. I’d always wanted to play Super Rugby, I just thought it was the best tournament. I did get approached years and years before, by the Brumbies, back in 1995 when I was playing club rugby in Sydney. Now as a northern hemisphere player you could never play because it clashes with the Six Nations, but I was no longer available for the Six Nations then so it was one where I said, ‘Yeah, let’s go for it’.”
Brought in by head coach Kevin Putt, another New Zealander who had himself made a name in Natal, the former scrum-half made no bones about the fact Townsend was signed to be a guiding influence. Townsend would be offered some coaching opportunities too, but game management was the real driver – “Things I hadn’t really been known for most of my career!” the current Scotland boss says with a laugh.
He had done a few sessions with Scotland U19s by then, but this was the first time he was asked to take sessions by a pro side.
When he was thinking about how the British & Irish Lions should attack the Boks on the most recent tour, Townsend stumbled across the old hotel-headed paper he had used that season with the Sharks to jot down ideas he got from watching how the Brumbies used moves after three phases. Touring with the Sharks then, coming up against attack-minded franchises in Super Rugby, as well as working with younger South African players, probably helped light a spark for a future in coaching.
One of the young charges then was Butch James, who would end up moving from 12 outside Townsend to starting fly-half, with the Scot on the bench. Townsend was happy to play the role of coming on to see games out with his kicking strategy (again, he points out, something that was at odds with his reputation in Scotland). He loved the experience.
If you ask former Sharks assistant coach Grant Bashford, he can explain that that more weathered mentors from another realm was something the Sharks were happy to go back to again and again. For him, the region and their rugby differs greatly from elsewhere in South Africa. According to Bashford, back in the days when the side were simply called Natal – and known to many as the ‘Banana Boys’ – the team were at their best when it had a mix of influences from around South Africa, as well as a foreign touch.
In his time as an assistant between 2006 and 2013, Bashford worked with Brown, Goode and Frédéric Michalak. As he explains of the impact made by outsiders: “When Tony Brown arrived, he had a 19-year-old Brad Barrett at 12 and a 19-year-old Ruan Pienaar inside him.
“You know, we’ve always been a little bit out of the box in Natal, (in relation to) the best conservative, South African approach. We’ve always been a bit different to the rest of the country. Attracting players like that for us… I mean Tony Brown in his own right was a genius. And so was Michalak.
“Coaching Michalak, you’d just say to the other guys in the back-line, ‘Listen buggers, expect the ball because I don’t know what’s going to happen!’ But you trusted that it’s going to be a good decision. So you end up more than coaching, you end up putting structures and options around the ten and let him use his decision-making ability to pick the best one, kind of thing. And then everyone benefits from the situation.
“Dealing with players like we are talking about, you don’t overcoach them, you actually let them bring their flavour into a group and provided the culture in your group is open-minded, that’s when you really start to see the benefits.”
Hernandez’s time at the Sharks was severely hampered by injury and we will never know what he could have achieved there fully fit, but his struggles did open the door for Goode, a late signing.
Bashford ponders if Goode too missed out on the best on-field experience with the side, but adds: “We got this guy who was a fantastic team-mate – he had this mullet of a head, he put down a beer in about one second and the guys loved him. The players called him ‘Skullet’. He was just adopted into the team and that’s sort of what I’m saying, when you get players that come into your environment and they’ve got a personality and it just suits the character of the group.”
Bashord is also effusive with praise for Brown, whom he says the coaches would often leave to take sessions because he had such good ideas about space, identifying colours or movements – he saw the game differently from how many of the local lads did.
“I loved my time there,” Brown tells Rugby World. “I was playing rugby in Japan at the time and Dick Muir (then head coach) rang me up and asked me if I’d be interested in going to the Sharks and help out. Butch James had injured his knee at the time, leading into that season, so he was unavailable for a campaign. I had to get it past my Japanese club who I’d just re-signed with, they said that I could go so that all worked out well.
“I’d sort of already started coaching with my Japan club then, I was just starting into the pathway. When I got there I enjoyed working with the young guys – Frans Steyn was there, the Beast (Tendai Mtawarira) was just starting to become a loosehead then. And just around the team I was able to add a lot of experience around how to play, because we had young guys like Pienaar and Barritt.”
And why do you think you fitted in there?
“I’ve always enjoyed the physical side of rugby,” Brown starts. “I never felt as though I needed to shy away from the contact and that’s how South Africans play their game. Especially with the Sharks, where Butch James played a similar style to myself. And my favourite player of all time was Henry Honiball. And I guess I tried to base my game around the way that he played the game, so I think my style fitted the way the Sharks boys played.”
According to Brown, the Sharks’ openness to having styles and talents coming in from overseas is something for the side to be proud of. In turn, he revelled in working with coach Muir and Balie Swart; meeting future hall of famers in John Smit, Bismarck du Plessis and Percy Montgomery.
There is also so much more to take in than just the rugby when landing in a new culture. Townsend recalls the recovery session with an 8am beach run and swim. Not strong in the water, he was assured jumping off the pier and swimming back to shore would be an experience he loved. After splashing back in against the current, swallowing water all the way, he tapped out one swim into a four-lap session.
In his last week he also found himself back at the beach further up the coast, the night after training, fishing for Sharks. It was only then, at the end of his time, that he realised getting in the water at night would have been a complete no-no…
For Brown there were some other incidents he laughs about. Or at least he can now.
Like the time he and his wife were asked to house-sit further south for the team masseur. They were told that if the owner’s dogs barked and alarms went off, to lock yourself in the bedroom, that local security would sort things out and to not answer the door under any circumstance. Of course the alarm did go off that night, and after a lot of banging, Brown eventually barricaded his wife in and plucked up the courage to go to investigate – only to discover it was security at the door and that a monkey had triggered the alarm.
And if that’s not enough wildlife for you, Brown also remembers with a chuckle the times when, while the team were deep in their warm-up indoors, really close to kick-off, the owner of Mr Price – a major sponsor – would be wandering around talking to players, while drinking red wine. “You’d never get that in New Zealand!” he says.
If the fine tradition continues beyond this term, who will be the next cast of tens willing to sample a new culture and help lift a famous rugby brand? For a franchise determined to go places, how interesting it would be to see another outsider ten take the steering wheel.
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