From the mag: Not all black and white

New Vodacom Bulls director of rugby Jake White arrives at the franchise with life lessons that have shaped a clear vision, writes CLINTON VAN DER BERG in the latest SA Rugby magazine.

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While has no idea what rugby will look like the other side of Covid-19, he has had time to think and evaluate his life in the months since he returned from Japan, where he coached Toyota Verblitz. It was a chapter of his life he thoroughly enjoyed. Now it’s time for a new one.

Critics might say ‘I told you so’, harping on about his itinerant rugby journey that has taken him to jobs all over the world. As ever with such sweeping claims, the lines between reality and fiction have been blurred. It’s easy to beat White with a stick apparently of his own making, but we’d be crucifying him for a lack of ambition had he stopped coveting big international jobs in his mid-40s. It’s why he pursued them.

‘I was 40 when I got the Bok job, 43 when we won the World Cup. It’s like playing international cricket. You want to be at Lord’s playing in front of 70 000, not at a local park playing on a mat. Of course I chased the big jobs.

‘There has been lots of criticism over the years, much of it based on hearsay,’ says White. ‘There are many senior coaches who have had more jobs than I. What people don’t realise is that I’ve been coaching since 1982 – of course I’ve had many jobs. You can’t stay in one place for 30-35 years.’

There have been fallouts, bickering, claims and counter-claims linked to an assortment of positions but White only truly regrets his decision to walk away from the Brumbies when he was on to a good thing. When he arrived, the Canberra outfit had two Wallabies. When he left that number had swelled to a dozen. Club rugby was rejuvenated, crowds were up and the city fathers were charmed.

Among the many lessons he’s learned over the years has been handling criticism. He’s better at doing so now, although says his mis-steps were invariably what he thought at the time was the right thing to do; like leaving the Brumbies.

White walked away early in a fit of pique. Having coached the only regional team to beat the British & Irish Lions in 2013, he had been tapped on the shoulder by the Australian Rugby Union about the Wallabies job. But the excitement quickly dulled when the ARU cooled on the idea in the wake of Robbie Deans getting axed and Mickey Arthur losing the Australian cricket job. The appetite for foreign coaches had clearly been sated. White felt he had been burned, so he packed up.

‘I probably should have stuck it out,’ he says candidly, a perspective shaped by subsequent events at the Sharks.

He was sold a dream by then-chief executive John Smit but White’s time in Durban was largely fraught and challenging. Apart from the responsibilities of the coaching job, there was his tangled relationship with Smit. The two had enjoyed a long, prolific association highlighted with their 2007 World Cup triumph. However, back in Durban, Smit was the Sharks boss, albeit inexperienced, and White had to take orders from his one-time underling.

It was a fragile dynamic, with Smit having to balance his needs and ambitions with White’s drive and vision. For a while the pair tried to make it work, but neither was ever backward in coming forward and the relationship predictably frayed. White won’t talk ill of Smit but he says the experience taught him to never assume anything. ‘I was probably naive and told John, “this is probably not going to work”.’

If his gig at the Sharks ended poorly, it is the Brumbies adventure that is the source of White’s real regret. Even now, seven years later, he wishes he had completed his contract. ‘I should have been more streetwise.’

Having been given a blank canvas in Canberra, the assignment rates as the best of his career. The Springbok job was a plum role but the Brumbies gave him a chance to create a new culture on his own terms.

White enjoyed his time in Japan, too, ranking the lifestyle and learning among the best. The language challenged him, so too working with local players who were graduates aged 23 and older. They were an intellectual group with intellectual demands, testing White’s methods, which he enjoyed.

It’s a long way from Japan to Pretoria but the over-arching demands with the Bulls will be similar: to create a winning culture. White revels in the prospect.

‘The Western Cape schools are the envy of everyone but, numbers-wise, it’s hard to beat what the Bulls have. It’s a region that stretches into Limpopo and Mpumalanga, which is where Duane Vermeulen and Danie Rossouw went to school. Lynwood Road in the city has 47 rugby fields alone. It’s a great thing, I can’t wait to get out there.’

Far from being office-bound, White wants to meet headmasters and rugby coaches. He wants to attend rugby days and derby matches all over the province. He has no interest in commuting to the Western Cape, his permanent home, preferring to immerse himself in Blue Bulls country and its strong rugby traditions. ‘I want to get out and see the boys play,’ he says.

White made it clear that he would be hands-on. He will be in charge of selection, recruitment and talent pathways for players and coaches at junior and senior level. He intends to create an ecosystem of shared goals, styles and strategies across the age groups. The prospect is staggering, especially if he gets it right.

He dealt with concerns about his history head-on. ‘There couldn’t be a repeat of what happened at the Sharks – that was part of my negotiations with the Bulls. We have a clear division of responsibilities. Relationships, as the years have taught me, are important. I haven’t always helped the relationships but I’m older – 56 now – and not the same guy I was. I’ve come to accept that when I get up in the morning things aren’t the same. I’m more relaxed, balanced. I think I’ve put enough runs on the board to know what I’m worth.’

*This feature appeared in the latest issue of SA Rugby magazine, now on sale.

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