Vodacom Bulls director of rugby Jake White never stopped believing that his team would make the final of the Vodacom United Rugby Championship.
White did not need hindsight to make these comments and he didn’t speak after the fact. He kept on telling media throughout the season that the Bulls would be where it mattered come the business end of the league.
The Bulls, in the league’s first month, were regularly placed 16th, 15th and 14th. They were one win from six matches, including a humbling 31-3 league opener against Leinster at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin.
White spoke of playing style adjustments and of his players being able to peak at the right time in a league that would test South African players and the four regional coaches like none had in the history of franchise rugby.
The URC was new to all the SA teams, in schedule and in time frame. The competition started in September and would conclude on 18 June. This was foreign in every aspect, most noticeably playing summer rugby in South Africa.
Then there was the disruption and uncertainty of the Covid-19 pandemic, postponement of matches, a weighted first-up away schedule and then a favourable home stretch of matches.
It was the home schedule White banked on. He felt his charges would find rhythm and form playing consistently at home. This would improve confidence in the players and also restore faith from the supporters, who had been spoiled with the team’s successive titles in the Currie Cup.
“We will be there when it matters most,” White told media.
He acknowledged that one win from six was not an ideal start but he also said he knew enough about playoff leagues that what mattered most was getting into the playoffs.
“Once you are in the playoffs it becomes a new league – a league within a league, albeit one-off knockout matches. Sure, you want to be playing at home but, if not, you always have a chance in a once-off match.”
White’s coaching career is one of success. Wherever he has gone he has transformed a hopeless situation.
White won the U20 World Cup with the Baby Boks and, four years later in 2007, won the World Cup with the Springboks in Paris, France.
He continued his coaching career in Australia and transformed a struggling Brumbies into Super Rugby finalists. He moved to the Cell C Sharks for a year and took them to an away semi-final against the Crusaders in New Zealand and in the next two years, would win Montpellier their first-ever European title, while also ensuring the team qualified for the Champions Cup.
White would add Japan to his coaching resume and also won silverware before returning to South Africa to head up the Bulls. He has transformed the culture, overhauled the playing squad, invested in local coaches as his assistants and integrated every aspect of rugby in the region to be a feeder to the URC squad. The Bulls also won the Currie Cup for the first time in a decade.
He has also done it with a smile, having learned so much while on the road in the past 10 years.
“Players respond to clarity and calm,’ White told the URC. “My job is to get the player identification right and define a style that speaks to the strengths of those players. Then it is about player conditioning and performance.
“It doesn’t mean we win every game but we win a heck of a lot more than we lose and the longer the group stays together, the more they improve.”
White’s Bulls lost 19-17 to the DHL Stormers in their last visit to Cape Town Stadium, and at the time White told media not to discount the two teams meeting again in the playoffs.
White was sure both teams would be there and that they would do any playoff match, including a final, justice.
“I never stopped believing and neither did the support staff. Critically, the players never stopped believing and you only had to watch their performance against Leinster in Dublin to know this.”