Former coach Jake White led the Boks on a four-year journey that culminated in hoisting the Webb Ellis Cup in 2007. He shares his thoughts on the Bok team and what they can expect at the World Cup in Japan.
What goes into getting a team ready for the World Cup?
The most important thing is to have a clear plan that works backwards from the World Cup final to the day you were appointed Bok coach. That’s what Rassie Erasmus [above] would have done at the beginning of last year and every decision he’s made since would have been based on that. You get years to implement a plan for a tournament that is the jewel in rugby’s crown, and that’s what makes the World Cup so unique – all the Test teams arrive well prepared from an extended period together. From a selection point of view, you want to make sure all the players in the squad are ready and that’s why players get rotated and rested. The friendly games are also important.
For example, England and France may have wanted to warm up for the tournament against South Africa, and sometimes it makes sense to take on two powerhouses like that because your team need that preparation. But other times you want to play weaker teams to create confidence and cohesion – you don’t want to lose the friendlies and go to the World Cup on the back of two losses.
In 2007, we played Connacht, Scotland and Namibia and that gave us the room to try things without massive pressure. We had to play England and Samoa in the first two weeks of the World Cup, and that’s why we didn’t have a heavy schedule of friendlies.
What does it take to win the World Cup?
Obviously there are factors such as luck; you need a little bit of luck so that your best players are available and in reasonable form. But you can’t go to the World Cup and fluke it; everything has got to be planned, down to the smallest details.
Every team that has won it had a detailed plan on how they were going to do it. Having said that, the plan needs to be flexible so that you can adapt to the unexpected. The reality is that certain unforeseen things will happen to disrupt your schedule, like strikes at the airport, or an injury to Aaron Cruden and you need to fly in Stephen Donald. You need to have a detailed plan in place, but be adaptable enough to adjust to changes.
Rassie Erasmus was a member of your Bok management team. Are you surprised he’s turned the team around over the past two years?
I’m not surprised at all, Rassie has an astute rugby brain. The results speak for themselves. What they’ve achieved in a short space of time is incredible. Matthew Proudfoot has been under Rassie for years and our scrum is now demolishing people and we’ve suddenly got one of the strongest forward packs in the world. But let’s also not be ignorant of the fact that Rassie has been given everything he’s asked for, and that’s exactly how it should be. I’m not surprised that a coach
who is given a six-year contract and the full backing of SA Rugby is getting results.
A couple of years ago a 25-man Bok squad flew economy class to Buenos Aires via Frankfurt; this year we split the squad and took a group to New Zealand one week early to prepare for the Wellington Test, stayed one week after to prepare for the match in Salta and then flew to Argentina business class with a squad of 34. That’s how things should be done. Just look at the results!
What are the challenges of taking a team to Japan?
It’s certainly going to be a unique experience because it’s the first time the World Cup will be played in Asia. The challenge you have is that there is obviously no English sign-writing, everything is in Japanese, and many of the Japanese people will be oblivious to the fact there’s a Rugby World Cup on the go. That’s very different to a World Cup in a place like Wales, where everyone is rugby mad.
I remember in Paris in 2007, the players told me that it felt very different to the World Cup in Australia because in 2003 they were based in Perth and the opening ceremony was in Sydney, which is a four-hour time difference. They said they didn’t feel like they were at the World Cup whereas in Paris we were in the thick of it, and that created a vibe in the squad. Tokyo is a big place and not all the games are there. A team could be based on one of Japan’s islands and feel like they’re slightly detached from the tournament. The games will be broadcast on TV, but the sports pubs will be tuned into sports like baseball and soccer, which are more popular in Japan.
What were some of the off-field hurdles you had to clear at the 2007 tournament?
What people don’t know is that long before the tournament, the team managers went to an official meeting and each pulled a number out of a hat. If that number was lower than each of the teams you were playing against, you’d get first choice of which hotel you’d like to be based at, your training venues and schedule, and which change room you’d like to use on match day.
If your opponent got to decide those things, you’d then have to explain to the players why you were in the worst of the two change rooms, why the captain’s run and perhaps your access to the gym facilities were earlier or later than you’d like. Basically every advantage was given to the team with the lower number and that impacted your preparation for each match.
Who do you rate as the wildcards to win it?
The one team no one has spoken about, but who could surprise everyone, is France. They have an unbelievable World Cup record. In 1987 and 1999 they lost in the final; they haven’t won it but they’re always in the mix.
Don’t forget that Bernard Laporte coached in two World Cups and he’s now president of French rugby. He got rid of Guy Noves and brought in this coaching staff, many of whom played for him when he was a coach, so he’s going to give them as much support as he possibly can.
Are you satisfied with the current state of the Boks?
If I was coaching there now I’d be over the moon with where the team is. You can see they’re a happy group just by the way they sang on the stage after winning the Rugby Championship in Salta. You can’t fake that. South Africa have also definitely got some of their aura back and rivals are seeing them as the real deal again. When the Boks have that aura, there’s something that takes them to the next level. We’re a country that plays on momentum and confidence, and that’s definitely evident now.
Frans Steyn [left] made his Test debut under you, won the 2007 World Cup and, more recently, played for you at Montpellier. What value does he add to the Bok squad?
Frans made his debut for me and then played for every single Bok coach since. The fact he’s older and wiser, and he understands the whole picture will be important for South Africa. It’s not only what he can do on the field, but also what he does for the players around him. It’s a little bit like what Os du Randt did for us between 2004 and 2007. It hit the players that this is a guy who’s been there and done it. Don’t underestimate the value of him having won a World Cup and got the T-shirt. That counts for a lot.
Malcolm Marx is arguably the best hooker in the world, but Bongi Mbonambi isn’t far behind. How does that level of competition impact on a team?
It makes the group stronger. We had Bismarck du Plessis, John Smit and Gary Botha. Some would say those were three of the best Bok hookers. Bongi started in Salta, where we scrummed Argentina to pieces, and that says a lot because we always thought Marx was the only guy who could do that job for us. It’s fantastic for the squad that they’re competing and they both feel like they can start.
What about our options at scrumhalf?
The public has been shown that we’ve got three options at scrumhalf – Faf de Klerk, Herschel Jantjies and Cobus Reinach – and that bodes well for the group because that wouldn’t be the case if any of those players thought they were the only option. The gap between Fourie du Preez and Ruan Pienaar and Ricky Januarie got bigger in 2007 because Fourie was having such a good World Cup. When we struggled against Tonga, it helped to clarify the selections; selection meetings almost came to an end after that game.
What’s so nice about the situation at the Boks is that those three will be hungry to make the most of their chances against the likes of Namibia, Italy and Canada to put pressure on each other. We can use those games to get the best out of them.
You won a World Cup with the wing duo of JP Pietersen and Bryan Habana [left]. How does the current crop compare?
One area where South Africa is probably very blessed is in the outside backs. Cheslin Kolbe, S’bu Nkosi and Willie le Roux are all really talented. A couple of years ago, the All Blacks moved away from fielding two big wings like Joe Rokocoko and Sitiveni Sivivatu and they went to three less-physical guys who could run and kick. Cory Jane, Ben Smith and Israel Dagg were effectively three fullbacks.
People ask whether we’ve got the right mix in our back three, but the fact Kolbe plays wing and could play fullback and Willie plays fullback and could play wing and gives us the option to run it back, answers the question.
What is the bare minimum the Boks need to do for this World Cup to be deemed a success?
Win. We’ve all grown up believing South Africa is the world’s leading rugby nation and if we don’t expect the Boks to win the World Cup, chances are they won’t.