Late this afternoon Jake White will part company with his Springboks.
The result of the match — which is little more than a money-grabber for rugby causes — against the Barbarians is immaterial. Last Saturday, the Springboks delivered an appropriate farewell to the man who had guided them to a World Cup triumph. At the first time of asking, the world champions played rugby worthy of their title and allowed Jake to take leave of his charges in the manner he so clearly desired.
And take leave he has. There will be no return for White to the job he loved despite his recent remark that he wants to coach the Springboks again. It is difficult, if not impossible, to conceive of any set of circumstances that would permit his return. Jake has had his four years. Ultimately, he delivered on his extravagant promise that his team would win the World Cup. That is how Jake White deserves to be remembered.
White’s route to glory was not an easy one. SA Rugby must have come very close to giving Jake a red card at the end of last year. We may never obtain an even-handed account of just how close it was but no coach is called home in the middle of a Springbok tour in order to discuss the Cape weather with the SA Rugby executive.
Last year was White’s annus horribilis. The Springboks were defeated by every top team in the world bar France and no one will forget the 49-0 hiding by Australia in Brisbane. At no stage did the Boks look like potential world champions as they fumbled their way to a succession of defeats. Those now praising White were then amongst his severest critics and White himself had begun to play a very dangerous game off the field.
In the middle of all the disasters of 2006, White leaked to the media that the England job was his for the taking. He threatened SA Rugby that he would take the offered job unless his Springbok contract was extended until the end of the 2009 season. Unfortunately for him, SA Rugby’s network established that the England post had not been offered to White and that he was not even on their shortlist.
Armed with this knowledge, the SA Rugby executive were able to refuse all the demands of the underperforming coach. White’s ill-judged play, however, left a residue of ill-feeling within SA Rugby, who responded at the end of the year with an equally misjudged call for White to come and explain himself in the middle of the UK tour. Somehow, sanity eventually prevailed and White was given, with the very odd exception of the Luke Watson affair, a relatively free hand for the remainder of his tenure.
One got the impression that the SA Rugby bosses decided to leave White alone, secure in the knowledge that the Springboks would fail in France. They would then be free to get rid of their troublesome coach. SA Rugby was wrong on the first count and wound up looking mean-spirited on the second.
Throughout his four long years Jake White displayed remarkable mental strength. He never wavered from his belief that his team would win the 2007 World Cup. His faith in a core group of players that he had coached to victory in a junior World Cup enabled him, despite a succession of poor results, to select these players match after match in order to build up the experience that he valued so highly.
In particular, White gave his unreserved support to John Smit as his captain and refused to entertain the possibility that anyone else should either captain the Springboks or displace Smit as hooker. White rescued Percy from the misery of playing club rugby in Wales and persuaded Os to leave the peace of his beloved farm. These three key players provided the coach with stability where he most needed it.
White was also able attach the incomparable talents of Victor Matfield, Fourie du Preez, Bryan Habana, Juan Smith, Schalk Burger and Jean de Villiers. The massive presence of Bakkies Botha complemented perfectly the skills of Matfield. Outside of these 10, things were less settled. Importantly, he desperately needed a steady hand at flyhalf. Late in the day, Butch James found the maturity to add to his brutal defence and became the flyhalf Jake had been looking for four years.
Even later, JP Pietersen and Francois Steyn emerged to provide strength and brilliance where White had least expected it. Whoever filled the remaining few places the coach now had a world-class team. White was then smart enough to keep his squad fit and fresh. He then delivered a masterstroke by adding Eddie Jones to the mix. Once Jones was on board the backline began to run straight, offload the ball in tackles and draw their opponents before passing. For the first time in years, tries started flowing from the three-quarters. By the time the Springboks reached Paris confidence within the team was running at an all time high. White was no longer alone in thinking that this might be their year.
At a recent breakfast in Cape Town, the host asked of Percy, Schalk and Jean de Villiers what Jake White’s strengths were as a coach. Besides that of “excellent man-management” the three were hard-pressed to say much more about White’s skills. When the same question was put to them in respect of Eddie Jones, they were effusive in their praise of the Australian. De Villiers went so far as to say he had learnt more about playing rugby from Jones than in all the rest of his career.
Jones may have been brilliant but White must get the credit for employing him. It was White who drummed into his team that defence wins World Cups. White was first among the coaches to realise that possession through multiple phases rarely leads to points in international rugby. Teams, he saw, were better off kicking for position after three or four phases than losing it to turnovers. White also eventually got the Springboks to understand the importance of maintaining discipline.
White was also lucky. The World Cup draw was remarkably favourable to the Springboks and became more so as the tournament progressed.
His was the first team to win the World Cup without playing New Zealand, Australia or the host nation. For once, crucial decisions and the refereeing in general went in favour of the Boks. The generous intervention of Johan Rupert with his Queen’s Counsel saved Schalk Burger and Francois Steyn from further trouble when Sarfu had not had the foresight to equip the squad with such capability. Yet which winning teams have not enjoyed a fair slice of good fortune?
Now that he has gone we will miss Jake. He was something different and fresh on the South African rugby scene. He was cheerful, optimistic and determined. He has left behind him a Springbok team that is talented, gracious and respected. That is his real legacy and it is that for which we should be grateful.
•RAY White is a former United Cricket Board president