Jake White’s loyalty to and investment in his players have paid off handsomely for the Sharks, writes MARK KEOHANE in Business Day.
White invested in former SA U21, Wallabies and Brumbies winger Clyde Rathbone when even the player didn’t believe in his ability to play rugby. And now White has shown his loyalty to another winger in Tonderai Chavhanga.
White, when he coached the SA U21s, made Rathbone his captain. The Baby Boks won the world title.
Rathbone then moved to Australia and played for the Brumbies and Wallabies. A troublesome knee and depression ended the player’s career before White, on his appointment as Brumbies coach in 2012, helped to rejuvenate and reinvent Rathbone.
The coach believed. The player believed, and in the 2013 Super Rugby final between the Brumbies and Chiefs, Rathbone so nearly won it for the Brumbies and White.
Only an ankle tap (by Aaron Cruden) on Rathbone saved what would have been a championship-winning Brumbies moment. The Chiefs, playing at home, would beat the Brumbies for a second successive Super Rugby title.
Despite the result, White knew he was right to reinvest in Rathbone. He also told me this season he felt there would be reward for investing in Chavhanga, the Zimbabwe-born speedster who scored a record six Bok tries against Uruguay when White was Bok coach.
Chavhanga, after playing under White, had become a bit of a journeyman winger who couldn’t shake injury. He went to Wales, got injured badly and spent more than a year on the sidelines after reconstructive knee surgery.
When White got to Durban late last year to take over as Sharks director of rugby, he discovered Chavhanga was living and working in Durban. The player had a young family and was not playing competitive rugby. He had a job outside of rugby.
The two met and White agreed to create an opportunity for Chavhanga to train with the Sharks and to be medically assessed. The coach wanted an understanding of his rugby medical condition and he also wanted to see if the player had the desire and determination to again play at Super Rugby level.
There was no guarantee from either that this would end well and there was no financial incentive either. Chavhanga would work his rugby around what was paying the bills and only if White was convinced the player was good enough would there be talk of a professional Sharks contract.
I bumped into Chavhanga on the day of the Sharks’ last league match against the Stormers in Cape Town. He said his rehabilitation from injury was complete and he felt his pace was again an attacking weapon.
He also said he had been awarded a Sharks contract and was determined to give the region a return on investment. Mostly, he spoke about playing for a coach who believed in him, was willing to back him and who was loyal for the right reasons.
He said White had made him no promise but would give him an opportunity to succeed.
Well, in the context of where Chavhanga’s career stood a year ago, the player has succeeded. He was outstanding against the Stormers when replacing the injured JP Pietersen and his pace was electric in the play-off win against the Highlanders in scoring a try that gave the Sharks a 25-20 lead just minutes after the hosts trailed 20-13. The Sharks eventually won 31-27.
White’s coaching career has coincided with loyalty to players who have done well for him. I mentioned Rathbone. With the 2007 World Cup-winning Springboks, the most famous White investments were fullback Percy Montgomery and prop Os du Randt. White encouraged Montgomery to return from Wales to be a Springbok again and he enticed Du Randt out of retirement. White has also got the very best out of utility back Frans Steyn this season, and it has been Steyn’s boot that has been primary to the Sharks’ successful Super Rugby season.
And despite what happens in Christchurch this weekend, it has been a successful campaign for White and his Sharks.
They comfortably won the South African conference, they finished third overall and won a play-off to make the semi-finals.
All four semi-finalists will reflect on good campaigns and both travelling semi-finalists will believe victory is possible.
The Sharks won for the first time in Christchurch earlier this season and while the Brumbies were hammered in Sydney last month they’ve shown enough recent form to suggest this weekend’s semi-final will be decidedly closer.
White is no stranger to having to do it the hard way. A year ago his Brumbies won in Pretoria and then came close to winning in Hamilton.
A year ago there was the romance of Rathbone’s comeback and then the heartbreak of the Cruden ankle tap. This year there’s Chavhanga and, as White will tell you, when there’s out and out pace, there’s always good reason to believe anything is possible.
Photo: Shaun Roy/Gallo Images