1 November 2007
On Wednesday afternoon, Jake White, the International Rugby Board’s Coach of the Year and the architect of South Africa’s triumph at the Rugby World Cup in France, called a news conference to announce that he would not be reapplying for the post of Springbok coach.
White leaves the position at the pinnacle of the sport, bringing the curtain down on a difficult but undoubtedly successful time in charge of South Africa’s national rugby team.
His successor has very big shoes to fill.
When White took over the coaching reins at the end of 2003, the Springboks were a team in disarray. Their World Cup campaign Down Under had been overshadowed by a racial row before the team departed for Australia, further compounded by the revelations surrounding the squad’s preparations at “Kamp Staaldraad”. Their results were average at best.
On the field, the team had a lot of passion, but it was channelled into an ill-disciplined confrontational approach which, tactically, was as accomplished as an over-the-top charge out of the trenches in World War One.
Even before the World Cup, back in 2002, the Boks had made the record books for all the wrong reasons, suffering record defeats to England, Scotland and France. At Twickenham, against England, a pitiful and shockingly ill-disciplined performance resulted in a 53-3 hiding, while Scotland won 21-6 at Murrayfield and France won 30-10 in Marseille.
In addition, South Africa had last beaten New Zealand in a test in August 2000, and the All Blacks had run off six wins against them on the trot. The Springboks were ranked sixth in the world.
‘You’re going to win the World Cup’
When White first addressed his players after being appointed Springbok coach, he told them they were going to win the World Cup in France.
On 20 October 2007, South Africa claimed the Webb Ellis Trophy for the second time in the country’s history, joining Australia as the only two-time winner in the history of the event.
Having won the under-21 World Championships with John Smit as his captain, one of White’s first decisions was to appoint Smit captain of the Springboks.
Over the course of their tenure, both White and Smit came in for plenty of criticism. There’s a deafening silence from those quarters now; it’s hard to argue with the Webb Ellis Trophy.
From the time White took over the hot seat, he continually stressed that a four-year journey lay ahead, the destination being to the World Cup final.
Somehow, after a roller-coaster ride, with some great triumphs and some sobering lows, he survived rugby’s biggest pressure cooker job, and today walks away from it leaving a legacy second to none.
That includes a Tri-Nations title, the number one ranking in world rugby, the IRB coach of the Year Award in 2004 and 2007 and, of course, the World Cup.
White steps down having coached the Springboks in more matches than anyone else – 53 altogether – with two more matches to follow before his contract expires, against Wales and the Barbarians. His win rate stands at 67 percent.
A South African identity
He has enjoyed an even greater success than the figures show, however. Under White, the Springboks have grown as a team, establishing a South African identity that is disciplined, tough as nails, and undoubtedly world class. They are a team united, with the players clearly playing for one another and respresenting their country with massive pride.
This has led South Africans to unite behind them as never before. They identify with the Boks because a big part of the Springboks’ growth has come off the field, where the players have embraced the side’s support in an open and humble manner not always seen in the past.
White’s success has made the Boks a team of the people, an achievement that has been evident from watching the celebrations around the country since the team’s World Cup victory.
Keeping faith with the players
White has also meant a lot to the men who played under him. Take Os du Randt. White persuaded him to come out of retirement and kept faith with him in the face of the sceptics who said he was over the hill.
Du Randt now retires from the game as one of only four players to win the World Cup twice, and arguably the greatest loosehead prop in the history of rugby.
Percy Montgomery was playing club rugby in Wales when White approached him to return to the Springboks. Today he is South Africa’s most capped international of all time and the holder of numerous records, including the highest points’ scorer in Bok history.
The oft-criticised John Smit has become a revered captain, maybe the most respected captain in international rugby.
Bryan Habana and Schalk Burger, both players whose talent White recognised early on, were given opportunities to represent the Springboks at a young age; Burger was named IRB Player of the Year in 2004, while Habana won the award this year.
White also retained the combination of Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha at lock when he took charge of the Springboks. Under him they grew in stature and are now regarded as the foremost second row combination in world rugby. Together, they played a decisive role in South Africa’s World Cup final win over England.
Dreamed that, done that
With the majority of the players who were part of the Springboks’ World Cup winning team likely to be in with a shout at another World Cup campaign in 2011, White’s legacy on the playing fields is likely to continue for some time to come.
Jake White has brought pride back to the green and gold jersey adorned with the leaping Springbok. It’s a pride that is shared by all South Africans. And for this the country owes a big thank you to the man who, as a schoolboy, wrote an essay in which he said it was his dream to coach the Springboks one day.
White exceeded his dream. South Africa has benefited thanks to that.