x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 29 July 2017

Gracious Jake White is ready to try again

The former South Africa coach has fond memories of his time in charge, despite being shown the door after winning the World Cup in 2007.

It is now more than three years since Jake White bowed out of international rugby at the very top. South Africa's coach had been informed well in advance of the 2007 World Cup that his services would no longer be required at tournament's end. No matter the result.

Bearing in mind that his change in circumstances was forced upon him by a political machine intent on speeding up the Africanisation of rugby, White might be within his rights to bear a grudge. The fact that his team subsequently delivered their nation a second world championship in 12 years should have been one in the eye for his soon-to-be former employers. However, getting White to express any negative thoughts on his time in one of international sport's toughest jobs is about as easy as winning a line-out ball from Bakkies Botha and Victor Matfield.

"It was not winning the World Cup that I would regard as my highlight," said White, 47. "The highlight for me is coaching the national team in a country like South Africa. "Remember, I was a schoolmaster who coached through the ranks. The biggest day of my life was the day I was appointed the Springbok coach. Had I been the Springbok coach for just one day, it would have been the highlight of my life."

At the conclusion of the 2007 tournament, Eddie Butler, the former Wales captain turned commentator, mused on the irony that the World Cup-winning nation had dispensed with their coach, while the majority of the defeated nations kept faith with theirs. "Widely admired he may have been by the outside world, he simply had the wrong surname in a country where the politics of integration overwhelm the process of putting the best team on the field," Butler wrote in his column in TheObserver.

After signing off four years in charge by winning the Webb Ellis Cup, White was duly replaced by the first non-white Springbok boss, Peter De Villiers. The new man has polarised opinion ever since, but he has certainly perpetuated the cycle of success that White began. In a country where not everything is black and white, De Villiers rarely deals in shades of grey. However, a series win over the British & Irish Lions as well as a Tri Nations title mean he has often been forgiven his foibles.

De Villiers has enjoyed a choice war of words with his opposite number, Graeme Henry, in the build up to tomorrow's Tri Nations opener in New Zealand. The two men are cut from very different cloth. Indeed, Henry, another former schoolmaster, bears far more similarities to De Villiers' predecessor. Between them, White and Henry, they won the IRB Coach of the Year award four years in succession from 2004 to 2007.

It is reassuring to know that, despite being such well-remunerated celebrities, sports stars such as Bryan Habana and Francois Steyn can still be brought to heel by coaches who first learnt their trade in classrooms. White, who was the first man to coach South Africa at every level from under-19 up to seniors, owes many of his ego-management skills to a trip he made to the US, where he shadowed the former Los Angeles Lakers basketball coach, Pat Riley.

"He was a phenomenal basketball coach who won [five] NBA titles," said White, who first taught at Jeppe High School for Boys. "He had to deal with guys like Shaquille O'Neal, so spending time with him put it into perspective. At the end of the day, when you are coaching rugby players, sure, there is a massive amount of ego that you have to deal with, but it is all relative. All coaches have to deal with those types of things."

Given the political backdrop of a country in transition, the coach of the South Africa rugby team is frequently faced with difficulties beyond the playing field. When he was asked why he put up with it all, by a rugby magazine in 2007, White recounted the words of the former New Zealand coach, John Hart: "Don't forget one thing - you only coach your country once. There is no guy who gets another chance, and those words have stuck with me."

Now he is ready to challenge that theory. By the time the next World Cup concludes, in New Zealand in 12 months time, White will have been out of the international game for four years. Just enough time, he reckons, to freshen the spirit in preparation for another crack at the big time. He wants to return to international rugby, most likely with Eddie Jones, the former Australia coach who acted as a consultant during South Africa's 2007 triumph, at his side.

"I'd like to have one more go," Jones said. "But it has to be a team who can either improve considerably or has a chance of winning things." Wales have already been put on alert that their coach, Warren Gatland, is likely to move on at the conclusion of next year's tournament. However, one position sticks out in White's mind more than any others. "There is a possibility that Eddie and I would like to put our names in the hat and say, let's see if we can get another bash at coaching South Africa."

pradley@thenational.ae