Jake White knows what it takes to turn a struggling team into title contenders, writes JON CARDINELLI.
It’s good to see White back on the South African coaching scene. Few understand the local game and its politics better than the man who steered the Springboks to World Cup glory in 2007 and then rebuilt the Sharks in 2014.
White knows how to turn teams around. His methods may not be popular, and there will always be members of the media and public who view his defence-oriented tactics as conservative – even though the game’s trends suggest otherwise. The bottom line, as his record shows, is that he knows what it takes to build a winning culture and how to get results.
This has to be the priority for the Vodacom Bulls and indeed all of South Africa’s franchises going forward. The Boks, of course, made a big shift in early 2018 when newly appointed coach Rassie Erasmus stated that results and titles should be the measure of a team’s success. Erasmus pushed the players to strive for a certain standard and ultimately a team ranked seventh in the world in 2018 went on to win the Rugby Championship and World Cup in 2019.
South African fans witnessed a similar rise from the ashes in 2004. The Boks bombed out of the 2003 World Cup and then became a laughing stock after images of the infamous Kamp Staaldraad emerged. When White replaced Rudolf Straeuli, however, he told a relatively inexperienced group in no uncertain terms that the Boks would win the next World Cup. He then proceeded to implement a plan that would yield significant rewards in the short and long term. The Boks won the 2004 Tri-Nations and then went on to lift the Webb Ellis Cup four years later.
Is it unreasonable to expect White to deliver in a similar manner now that he’s the Bulls director of rugby? The franchise lost a number of Boks and senior players at the end of 2019. There’s talk, however, that White is already looking to recruit some heavy-hitting South Africans who played under him during a successful stint at French club Montpellier.
White is a fan of tradition, and it wouldn’t surprise me if he looked to instil a culture and build a team that best reflects the franchise’s traditional strengths. The Bulls need to regain the physical aura they boasted in the late 2000s when Bakkies Botha and Victor Matfield were in their prime. They need to develop their depth to the point where they can sustain that kind of physical effort over a Super Rugby campaign. What people tend to forget is that the Bulls boasted one of the best try-scoring records during that golden era between 2007 and 2010. Much of that attacking success was down to the platform laid by the forwards.
Coach Pote Human said recently that he intends to pursue John Mitchell’s vision and transform the Bulls into a more attacking team. While we’ve seen bursts of brilliance from this side over the past three years, the Bulls haven’t managed to sustain their efforts to any telling degree. It may be time to consider whether those systems are working and if more balanced approach may serve them better – as it did for the Boks did in 2019.
Not enough has been made about the ‘other’ talent drain that’s hit the country hard over the past six or seven years. So many top coaches with a wealth of experience have moved to overseas clubs during this period, and unfortunately the respective franchises haven’t been able to appoint like-for-like replacements.
Hopefully the recruitment of a former World Cup-winning coach will bolster the Bulls and strengthen this country’s coaching collective. Erasmus, Jacques Nienaber and others on the South African coaching team have made the point that a strong franchise system will improve the Boks’ chances of remaining at the pinnacle of world rugby in the years to come.