Bulls coach Jake White gave a coaching masterclass in his team’s 43-9 Rainbow Cup SA battering of the Sharks in Pretoria. He also gave a lesson in how to select a match-day 23.
Rugby is a 23 a-side game and the notion of a starting XV and reserves bench is very outdated. The very best coaches know that there are days you pick a player to start and one to play out the game. The very two players roles could be reversed a week later, depending on the opposition.
White has always picked teams that play to the strengths of his squad availability. He has never got lost in the romance of what supposedly constitutes good rugby. White has always preached that good rugby is when a team is winning. He has always been a disciple of getting the basics right, building the strongest foundations that speak to core values in conditioning, defence and set piece perfection. Then he adds the bells and whistles.
You never hear White talking about playing a modern way or about the ball not being in play enough or about too much kicking and you also never hear him talking in riddles.
If you want an example of the qualities of White, you only have to study what he did with the Australian Brumbies when he spent 18 months turning around their fortunes. He identified the spine of a good team, coached to the strengths of these players but also recognised there was enough grunt and quality in the squad for the Brumbies to veer away from an approach that relied more on phase ball than a strong set piece. In his time the Brumbies were strong in the scrum and lineout and physically matched or bettered every team in the competition.
White’s love for South African rugby and his regard and respect for the traditions of South African rugby meant he was the perfect fit for the Bulls. It took him going all over the world before returning to Pretoria, but his impact has been incredible in less than two years.
He culled players quickly and he has contracted so cleverly, balancing the introduction of several youngsters with the contracting and retention of seasoned veterans.
White got immediate results when his Bulls whipped the Sharks in the Vodacom Rugby Day that marked the restart of professional rugby in South Africa after a six month absence because of Covid. His Bulls lived up to the hype in winning Super Rugby Unlocked and the Currie Cup (for the first time in a decade).
He mixed and matched for two wins in three starts in the Preparation Series and halfway through the Rainbow Cup SA, his Bulls are three from three, including a very good win away from home against the Stormers in Cape Town.
White’s Bulls are currently the favourites to play the final of the inaugural Rainbow Cup against the winners of the northern conference in Britain in June.
White’s managing of his squad has been a highlight. He has trusted the youngsters in the biggest moments and not been afraid to introduce them into the match with it still in the balance. He has shown faith in No 23 as much as he has in naming No 1.
His pack selections against the Sharks were strategic and successful. He kept back his two big scrummaging props Lizo Gqoboka and Trevor Nyakane and trusted his starting props to be competitive against Os Nche and Thomas du Toit.
White’s decision to play Cornal Hendricks at No 12 since taking charge has also been vintage White.
The Bulls coach was particularly stoked with the performance of Gqoboka.
‘The impact Lizo made, that try he scored, was massive,’ White said.
‘Two weeks ago, he did the same, making a break down the short side and then off-loading to Zak Burger for a try that made the game safe.’
‘He’s a great scrummager, so it’s actually great if you can hold off on a guy like him, but we knew Thomas and Ox (Nche) would come hard at us at the set-piece.’
‘That’s why I deliberately swopped the props around at half-time. We knew they were going to make an impact, but some coaches might’ve waited until there were 20 to 30 minutes left before bringing Lizo and Trevor on.
‘I just felt I needed Lizo to play a full half because he’s been playing so well. He’s playing really good rugby and he knows there’s an opportunity for him now since Beast Mtawarira has retired.
‘Hopefully he’ll just get better and stake a claim for the series against the British & Irish Lions.’
Springboks coach Jacques Nienaber and National Director of Rugby Rassie Erasmus have included four of White’s Bulls in their national alignment squad camps. They are Duane Vermeulen, Morne Steyn, Gqoboka and Nyakane.
Ulster’s Marcell Coetzee, who will join the Bulls later this year, has also been included in the alignment squads.
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