Jake White’s return to South African rugby has made the game stronger in this country. It is good to have the 2007 World Cup-winning coach back in South Africa and while the Bulls have been the biggest beneficiaries, the Springboks are also healthier because of White, writes Mark Keohane
White’s rugby intellectual capital made the Brumbies in Australia winners again, won Montpellier their first ever European title and also put silverware in the trophy cabinet of Japanese club Toyota Verblitz.
But it has been his impact at the Bulls that has been the strongest reminder of the coaching qualities that won him a junior World Cup with the baby Boks and the ultimate title of the World Cup with the Springboks in 2007.
White, whose journey post the Springboks job, has taken him to Australia, back to South Africa for a season with the Sharks, to France, to Japan and back to Pretoria has shown one consistent, which is that White knows how to win and in all his jobs he has turned teams back into winners.
White has a formula in that he knows how to select, he knows how to cull and he knows how to contract. He also knows how to find that vintage year in a veteran and how to introduce the brightest youngsters alongside those veterans.
His contracting of Duane Vermeulen, Gio Aplon and Morne Steyn were masterstrokes, as has been his ability to lure back from overseas experienced Springboks Nizaam Carr, Arno Botha and most recently Marcel Coetzee and Johan Goosen, with the latter only having just arrived back in Pretoria.
Coetzee, a leading figure at Ulster for the past five years, stepped back onto Loftus and looked like he had never left South African rugby. Coetzee leads the Bulls in the first ever Rainbow Cup final against Benetton in Treviso, Italy on Saturday evening, kick off (18.30, SA time), in the absence of the injured Duane Vermeulen, while Steyn, Marco van Staden and Trevor Nyakane are also not playing because they are in camp with the 2019 Springboks.
White’s Bulls, in the past year, have won SuperRugby Unlocked, a first Currie Cup in 10 years and the South African Rainbow Cup conference. Winning the once-off final against Benetton would complete the rarest of tri-factors because the Unlocked trophy was a once off tournament and the Rainbow Cup is also a once-off tournament born out of necessity in the abnormal Covid-influenced rugby world of match and tournament scheduling.
White’s success with the Bulls has been immediate and this week I asked him what the secret was to the Bulls turnaround.
‘There’s no secret and there’s no magic formula,’ he said. ‘The hard work is constantly being done by the players and management, but if you are looking at consistency in how we are getting results, I would list: selection of the best management staff, a balanced played squad, alignment with the union’s president Willem Strauss and the CEO Edgar Rathbone as critical to the success.’
White also says that there is transparency from top to bottom at the union and within the squad, and with this honesty there is also enjoyment in that the players love what they are doing and all those involved with the squad want to make a contribution.
‘You coach to win and your players compete to win,’ said White. ‘But improving players and adding to their growth as people are also victories and if we as a coaching and management team can do that, then the national coaches also benefit from a stronger Bulls player and Bulls team. If we win, the Boks by extension win.’
White, who coached the Brumbies to a famous win against the British & Irish Lions in Canberra in 2013, will be after a rare provincial double when the Bulls play the tourists in July, but for now his focus is on developing as much depth for the Bulls to be competitive in the Currie Cup and also the inaugural United Rugby Championship, which starts in September.
‘I am a rugby traditionalist and I will also promote the virtues of the traditions of the game in South Africa. When I coached the Springboks, I benefitted from some wonderful Bulls players who made the Bulls one of the strongest provincial teams in the world and my hope is that Jacques Nienaber and Rassie Erasmus will feel that they are getting conditioned and quality players out of the Bulls set-up.
‘The current scheduling means a unique situation, in which the Bulls are playing in a European final in Italy just as the Bulls opening Currie Cup match against Western Province finishes. It’s a strange situation but it means we have the chance to assess the depth of player talent within the province and it also creates opportunities for players. Players who compete in the amateur Carlton Cup club structure are also getting a taste of professional rugby and it is very important to me, the president (Willem Strauss) and Edgar (Rathbone) that the professional structures recognize the Carlton Cup environment and have an alignment with them. The Carlton Cup has a rich history and our professional players must know the history of the province to know what the jersey means and the significance of the daisy on our crest.
‘In all the teams I have coached, I have wanted to create a culture in which players write a new chapter in the history of the jersey they play in and to do this, they need to know the history of the jersey.
‘The Bulls jersey is a special one and the ongoing challenge for every player is to leave the jersey in a healthier state than when they got it.’
The Bulls, in 2019 and 2020, had won seven matches from 22, with jut one win in six in 2020.
Since White’s arrival, the Bulls have won 19, lost five and had one no result in 25 starts, in which time they’ve won every tournament they’ve played in.
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