Jake White’s stint at Montpellier ended in failure, because he misread the French psyche, writes GAVIN MORTIMER.
So it’s ‘goodbye, Jake White’, or should that be ‘good riddance’? If the stinging attack launched on the Montpellier coach by one of his players is anything to go by, White won’t be missed in the south of France.
In an age of bland sports-speak, Montpellier hooker Charles Géli let rip at White during an extraordinary interview with French rugby newspaper Midi Olympique. Speaking the day after Montpellier had been dumped out of the Top 14 by Racing 92 in May, Géli told the paper the one positive from the defeat was it brought ‘to an end the South African era’. He continued: ‘They didn’t speak a word of French and the videos were all done in English … and the coaches would repeatedly tell us in a haughty tone that we did things badly in France.’
Géli, a Top 14 title winner with Perpignan in 2008-09, was similarly scathing of his South African teammates, explaining that most of them couldn’t string together a sentence in French, despite being at the club for two years or more.
‘I’ve got a better relationship with some supporters than with certain players, despite seeing them every day,’ said Géli. But surely, said Midi Olympique, White must have had one redeeming quality as a coach? ‘No,’ said Géli. ‘In the space of two years my English improved at the same rate my rugby went backwards.’
This wasn’t how it was supposed to end when White arrived at Montpellier in January 2015. Back then they had lost their way under Fabien Galthié, the former France captain who had guided them in 2011 to their first appearance in a Top 14 final – an honourable defeat to Toulouse. By the end of 2014, however, it was apparent the mercurial Galthié was bored, so Mohed Altrad, millionaire president of Montpellier, hired White.
From the outset White made it clear he had come to the Mediterranean to turn Montpellier from nearly-men into match winners. And if that meant implementing a style of rugby that was, in the words of one French newspaper, ‘cold and methodical’, then so be it. ‘I’m not paid so that some people can be happy,’ White told reporters in 2016. ‘I’m paid to win.’
And win he did that year when Montpellier defeated Harlequins in a dour European Challenge Cup final to lay the cornerstone for what White predicted would be an edifice of enduring excellence.
Twelve months on, the dream is in ruins and White has been replaced by Vern Cotter.
How did it go so wrong and how did the man who led the Boks to World Cup glory a decade ago win just 49 of his 82 matches in charge?
White has no one to blame but himself. It felt at times that he was intent on antagonising the French players and alienating the Montpellier public. Take, for example, his treatment of local hero François Trinh-Duc at the end of last season, when he denied the flyhalf the chance to say goodbye to his adoring public before his move to Toulon. ‘The sentimental thing would be to pick him for the last home match, but that’s not possible,’ said White. ‘My job is to select the best.’
In a sense, he was right, but it wouldn’t have hurt to have given Trinh-Duc who, let’s not forget, has won over 50 French caps, five minutes from the bench. It was a crass snub and reinforced the view in Montpellier that such a cold-blooded man was unsuited to coach a club of their character.
Altred evidently agreed, for in September he announced the appointment of Cotter for the 2017-18 season, much to the ‘sadness and disappointment’ of White. Cotter is also an outsider, but the Kiwi, who spent nearly a decade at Clermont before joining Scotland, has embraced French culture and accepted all their idiosyncrasies.
White never did. It was as if he believed the French would eventually come round to his way of thinking. That towering conceit cost him dearly.
It cost Montpellier, too, this season. Dumped out of the European Champions Cup at the pool stage, they were then beaten at home in their Top 14 quarter-final, and by Racing 92. This is the club that has lurched from one crisis to another in recent months and yet they still had the character to come together to beat Montpellier when it mattered. They did so in front of rows of empty seats, each one bearing mute testimony to the indifference many locals felt to White’s team. In 2013-14 the average home gate for a Montpellier match was 13,276, a figure that slumped this season to 10,935 (the 10th lowest in the Top 14).
Speaking of alarming figures, Altrad wanted to know why there have been 58 torn muscles among the Montpellier players this season. Two years ago there were only 16. ‘It’s not normal,’ he reflected.
Jacques Giordan, the club’s medical co-ordinator, agreed. ‘The South African culture is different and I don’t think they have the same medical approach [as ours].’
And therein lies the reason White came to grief in Montpellier. He tried to do things the South African way. Fine, if he was in South Africa, but in France it was a faux pas that ended in failure.
– This article first appeared in the July 2017 issue of SA Rugby magazine