Jake White’s appointment of sports psychologist Henning Gericke was a masterstroke in the Bulls revival, writes MARK KEOHANE in the latest SA Rugby magazine.
Gericke, the ‘head doctor’, who in 2007 was ahead of his time in South African rugby, was perfectly on time when the Bulls won the Currie Cup for the 24th time and for the first time in more than a decade.
Gericke was a magnificent middle-distance athlete, who in 1977 set a youth world record of 3.45.30 in the 1 500m and in one remarkable day won the 800m, 1 500m and 3 000m at the South African Junior Championships. With 10 sub-four-minute miles, he could run, and in 1984 qualified in the 1 500m for the Los Angeles Olympics.
South Africa’s sporting isolation meant Gericke would never make it to those Games.
Fast forward to 2007 and Gericke was among the biggest influencers in White’s Springboks World Cup-winning campaign. The players respected him and White rated him for having an athletic pedigree to match his professional pedigree as a sports psychologist.
Fast forward once more to 2021, and Gericke was again one of the main influencers in another Jake White success story.
Paris, 2007, was special for Gericke. Pretoria, 2021, was significant.
For all the global recognition of winning the World Cup in 2007, winning the Currie Cup at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria was particularly pertinent to Gericke, who matriculated at Menlo Park in Pretoria and graduated at Pretoria University.
When White called Gericke in 2020 and asked him to be a part of the Bulls, he didn’t hesitate, despite a decade working corporate gigs.
‘It was Jake, it was rugby, it was the Bulls … It was a homecoming.’
That’s the high-level summary of why Gericke said yes.
When I asked Gericke about the winning formula in the Bulls securing Super Rugby Unlocked and the Currie Cup, he paused and said: ‘Luck.’
A few seconds passed and I didn’t say anything. Then he started laughing.
‘Hey, I still have a sense of humour.’
Gericke and I hadn’t spoken in some years, but his sense of humour was as wicked as it was in 2007 when the Boks ruled the world in France.
What has changed is the man himself and what has also changed is White.
‘I am so much better than I was in 2007,’ says Gericke. ‘I have grown and improved in so many areas and I am thankful to my corporate experience of the past 10 years. Jake is so different to that coach who led the Springboks to World Cup gold in 2007. Technically, Jake is a brilliant coach.
‘He was in 2007 and he is in 2021, but Jake, in his management of players and support staff, is an improved version. This evolution has been significant to the success of the Bulls and it has been so rewarding to witness him returning to South Africa and inspiring the Bulls to such an amazing double,’ says Gericke.
‘He certainly made it easy for me to flourish with the players and management. He unconditionally supported my approach and he aligned so effortlessly with Bulls CEO Edgard Rathbone, empowered the senior players, encouraged the youngsters and never doubted the expertise of all his management support staff. The Jake of 2021 is content and particularly calm. He is such an asset to South African rugby.’
Rathbone, in his mid-30s and younger than some blokes still playing the game, has proved the perfect partner for a head coach with White’s international pedigree.
‘He controls what happens on the field. My job is to control the results off the field. I was never going to try to tell a World Cup-winning coach who to select or how to play. There was an immediate acknowledgement and respect for our strengths,’ says Rathbone.
‘We both also had – and have – such an appreciation for the history of the Bulls and the expectation that comes from Bulls supporters. We are also both driven by results and a desire to deliver these results.’
Rathbone is a leader of the new generation executives in South African rugby’s boardrooms and White is a brilliant coach who has always divided opinion in South African rugby. Gericke’s priority was to ensure the two were united in vision, implementation and expectation.
‘They clicked instantly and the power of this relationship is at the heart of the relationships between coach and player, coach and management, coach and investor, coach and the board, coach and the union’s president, coach and the supporters, coach and the many playing legends who have made the Bulls so successful in the past century,’ says Gericke.
Upon his appointment, White invested in Springbok veterans Duane Vermeulen, Gio Aplon, Cornal Hendricks and Morne Steyn. He built a playing spine that combined hardened professionals, the potential of youth and the potency of sevens specialists.
Rathbone supported investments that spoke to the now and the future.
The CEO and coach respected the monetary influence of billionaire investors Patrice Motsepe and Johann Rupert.
‘I know we are privileged to have that duo behind the Bulls and it did allow us the luxury of being able to spend in a climate of cost-cutting. But I take comfort that we spent wisely, within reason and with an understanding of the immediate season and a sustained future,’ says Rathbone.
Gericke lauds the relationship between Rathbone and White, but he also credits the Bulls’ success to the honesty among the squad, and the desire of everyone to deal with historical perceptions and to move forward with a common purpose of being the 24th Bulls winners of the Currie Cup.
‘There was a perception Jake had of certain players and management. Equally, what they thought of him. We created an environment where that was dealt with up front. We created our own Cup, which spoke to 12 values that we felt defined the Bulls as champions, on and off the field.
The 12 values represented the 12 matches we’d have to be successful in to make the Currie Cup semi-finals. Each match came with a value that spoke to the essence of Bulls rugby,’ says Gericke. ‘This in-house Cup was the making of us winning the Currie Cup.’
White, in 2007, and Vermeulen, in 2019, won the World Cup with the Springboks, but Gericke says the desire of the pair to win the Currie Cup was the equal of any national motivation.
‘Neither looked to their past achievements. All they spoke about was the significance of a 24th Bulls Currie Cup title and what it would mean to the people of the province. It meant as much to them as being the best in the world,’ says Gericke.