Jake White, in the Cape Argus, tells Keo what it means to be the first Bok coach to make it to 50 tests.
It helps to have shared an office with Jake White for three years and to have worked alongside him in the inner sanctum of Springbok rugby. So the guy sitting opposite me sipping coffee in Paris isn’t giving me a media interview with rehearsed catch phrases.
This is Jake White, in full expression, as he was every day at the office or on the team bus seven years ago.
The only time Springbok rugby takes a back seat is if the conversation turns to his days at Jeppe Boys’ High.
His dress sense hasn’t changed. The collar’s still up and a pair of socks still hasn’t found its way into his wardrobe. The only change is he now has two cellphones and he checks them constantly.
His attention span can be short, especially if the question bores, irritates or is too uncomfortable.
But I also know what keeps his attention span. Bok traditions. Jeppe and don’t stop talking rugby.
His passion for the game has ensured he made it to the World Cup. His refusal to give up got him to Paris.
He’s wiser now than a year ago, but then he spent the best part of last year taking a beating, on the field, in the boardroom and in the media. But he survived because he wanted to.
“A guy who hasn’t played for the Boks always says he will do anything to get that first cap. But the question I always ask the new guy is if he will still do anything and work as hard once he has got that cap.
“I said I would do anything to get the Bok job, but once I was there I had to show that I’d fight for the right to coach the Boks and never give up on that ideal.
“I had to compromise at times to survive and I had to be selfish at times to get this far. But I also worked damn hard to stay there.
“That’s why I was never going to walk away from the job last year, even when I was at my lowest in terms of results. The pressure was more intense than anything I had known. What kept me sane was a belief in the ability of this squad, the players and coaches.
“I always knew that we could be a contender at this World Cup, based on performance. I wasn’t prepared to hand that over to somebody else – not after what this squad had been through since 2004.”
White talks constantly about the squad, the leadership of John Smit, the support of his assistant coaches and the belief in his philosophy in selection meetings.
The celebration of him making it to 50 Tests should be balanced with a hard look at how it is that in the history of Springbok rugby he’s the first one there, he says.
“It shouldn’t be right that Nick Mallett only coached South Africa 38 times. It shouldn’t be right that no one else has gone beyond 25.
“That’s the system that has to change in our game. There has to be a succession plan, in which intellectual capital is not lost.
“I feel privileged to have 50 Tests next to my name as Bok coach, but my job in the past few years would have been a lot more comfortable had I been able to tap into the knowledge of other guys who had gone beyond 50.
“There’s no manual to tell you how to deal with losing your best players, losing seven from nine Tests or dealing with the success of winning the Tri-Nations in your first year with a young squad.
“In my 28 Tests as Nick’s technical adviser and Harry Viljoen’s assistant coach we lost five. I learned the value of a winning culture through being there when it goes wrong.
“That’s where we need to get it right in South African rugby. We need to be prepared to build a winning culture, roughing the tougher times, and we need to identify people who want to enhance this culture.
“I did some reflecting on my 50th Test and the past four years, but what should excite all South Africans is what can be achieved in the next four years, whether I’m the coach or not. We have a fantastic squad that should be kept together and not culled on the basis of the World Cup ending.”
I don’t have to ask White what the low points were in the past four years, as I was among those who pounded him while he defiantly rejected criticism that he was getting it wrong in 2006. I also know which matches are the trophy moments, because I led the cheerleading when he was getting it right.
Any win against the All Blacks is a big moment. Any defeat is a low.
Statistically White is among the best Bok coaches there has been. In terms of longevity no-one post isolation has lasted as long. But what’s the legacy? What’s his view?
Is it player development? Is it something unique to his personality? What, according to White, has defined his era? Is it the results?
“Getting the job was my biggest victory and getting to 50 is great but I don’t see it as an end. Results don’t define but contribute towards a legacy. A legacy is that young rugby boys in South Africa, black and white, want to wear the Bok jersey.
“I think people are proud of the Springboks and there is an aspiration to be a Springbok.
“Internationally there is respect for the Boks.
“My greatest achievement as Bok coach is that players and supporters stand tall in green and gold and react positively to any association with the Springbok.”
Winning percentages of all the Bok coaches post-isolation (1992)
100% Kitch Christie (14 from 14)
71% Nick Mallett (27 from 38)
63% Jake White (31 from 49)
61% Andre Markgraaff (8 from13)
53% Harry Viljoen (8 from 15)
52% Rudolf Straeuli (12 from 23)
37% Carel du Plessis (3 from 8 )
33% Ian McIntosh (4 from12)
20% John Williams (1 from 5)
*Gerrie Sonnekus, appointed to succeed John Williams, never took up the position
Did you know?
White, Mallett and Christie’s overall winning percentage is 71, in which time the Boks won the World Cup and two Tri-Nations. Between the other six, the Boks winning rate was 48% and they never won the World Cup or Tri-Nations.
White, Mallett and Christie won eight of 17 Tests against the All Blacks. Markgraaff, Viljoen, Straeuli, Du Plessis, McIntosh and Williams won one of 17 against NZ.