The Cell C Sharks Under 19s had a spectacular year, winning the SA Rugby Under 19 Championship after going through the entire season of 14 matches unbeaten.
Their accomplishment came through design and commitment to a dream, with the players embracing a team culture and a pledge to work hard and improve every week.
Head coach Sean Everitt moulded a team of school-leavers from all around the country into a powerful and happy unit which translated into the team’s triumph at the culmination of the season.
The recipe behind the team’s success over the season was very much a player-driven effort. While a coach may set a style and team culture, it’s up to the players to implement and embrace both.
“It can’t just be a coach driving this, it’s got to be an all-in thing,” Everitt explains. “We oversee things as the coaching staff, but the players went away on a camp and came up with their own values. The biggest thing was having the buy in and the success of the team was because everyone bought in.”
However, for any team to be successful, you need good players, “And we certainly did, The Sharks recruited well. We had good players from outside the province as well as some Sharks Academy players who improved over the season.
“Improvement was a goal the players had in place for the year. They wanted to get better every week and were quite hard on themselves in that respect. They did a lot of their own reviews and worked hard to improve where they could and the team did get better.
“The culture in the team was great because they are really good people, everyone lived the values and if you act on values then you develop a strong culture.”
As the team progressed, as they started to believe that special things were in their grasp, so the confidence grew. But the final became a results-driven performance rather than the performance-driven efforts of the season which could have derailed matters.
Ultimately, an emphatic 40-27 victory over the Bulls in the final was convincing evidence that they were by far the best team in the tournament.
“The guys were extremely excited before the game which was a worry for me because they had been composed throughout the whole season,” Everitt explains. “It wasn’t our best 80 minutes of rugby, although we did get better as the game went on. We’re very excited to have pulled through and the players deserved everything they achieved.”
He admitted that much of the team’s success was also built around good preparation. In years passed, the squad would gather six to eight weeks before the competition started, but in 2018 they began early in the year.
“Starting our preparations in January gave us a lot of time to prepare and by the time the tournament started, this was a pretty complete rugby team. There was no learning ‘along the way’, that was all already taken care of. However, even though we won all six games in the first round and were improving all the time, we still weren’t playing to potential. But in the second round, we were a vastly improved team, doubling our try count.
“Probably our most complete performance of the season was beating the Leopards 92-8. They had come off a good win against the Cheetahs and narrowly lost to Western Province the week before, so we knew we were up against a good team, but the guys really stood up.”
The stats show that this was an all-round team. “We defended exceptionally well when we had to – an example of that would be the final – and scoring amazing tries along the way. Scoring 84 tries in 12 games tells a story.”
Although he knew that the team was well-prepared, he wouldn’t have dreamed that the side would go through the season unbeaten. Achieving a 100% success rate in a season is a rare feat, but something the Cell C Sharks Under 19s accomplished.
“The first round game against the Bulls in Pretoria [in week 4] set the benchmark of where we were and where we wanted to be, and we took a lot of belief out of that game. When the final whistle went, I could see how excited and happy the team were and we actually used that as a motivational clip ahead of the final.
“This team wanted to be successful and were ably led by [eighthman] Phepsi Buthelezi. The group set themselves high standards and played for each other which is exactly what you want as a coach. It’s very rewarding.”
Buthelezi’s contribution to the team’s success should not be understated. The former DHS Headboy and 1st XV captain led by example throughout, showing great ability and leadership all season.
“He’s a phenomenal rugby player who was rewarded for his performances when he played flank in the SA Under 20 matches against France,” said Everitt. “He came into The Sharks with good leadership attributes and he and I have a very special relationship. He backed me up with the messages to the team and as a player and captain, was respected by all and the players bought in to everything he had to say in meetings.
“The way he led the team, his interactions with referees, the on-field decisions he made at crucial times were all outstanding. That’s credit to a guy who will go a long way in his rugby career.”
Ultimately the team will look back at this year as a very special one, when they committed to doing everything in their power to succeed, and eventually reaped the rewards.
“We all wanted to create memories, we wanted to remember this year as a special one and I think we achieved everything we set out to do.
“Winning the cup was the cherry on the top.”