Durban – If anyone ever doubted how rare it is for Jake White to be in two minds or unsure of anything, attendance at his first official big press conference since taking over as the Sharks director of rugby this week should have been enough to erase that doubt.
When White was asked if he had been in contact with Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer to discuss where Patrick Lambie would play this season, he misunderstood the question. Or maybe he didn’t misunderstand the question at all and was just making it clear that the position Lambie plays for his Super Rugby franchise is up to him, and no-one else.
Either way, his response to the line of questioning was forthright, to the point and didn’t leave any space for misinterpretation.
“I am telling you that Lambie will play flyhalf for 80 minutes of every game,” said White.
So no beating about the bush with that subject, and the same held when the subject switched to Frans Steyn. When he was Bok coach, White did once say that he thought Steyn would make a great fullback, which is where he played him in some of the matches on his first tour as a Bok back in 2006.
“Frans will play No 12. In doing so he will give Lambie a massive amount of confidence, but apart from us playing those two players together at flyhalf and inside centre (the key backline decision-making axis) fits into the philosophy of the team,” said White.
Of course White’s forthrightness, or decisiveness, hasn’t always been everyone’s cup of tea, not least the administrators he clashed with when he was Bok coach and en route to the World Cup title between 2004 and the end of 2007.
However, players do thrive on that trait, as well as the confidence that he has exhibited already in the few months that he has been working behind the scenes on the Sharks’ 2014 Super Rugby campaign.
Some in the Sharks administration may have shuddered nervously when White so boldly pronounced a month or two ago that his team would win Super Rugby, but the statement was redolent of the one he made to the players in a dressingroom meeting at the start of his tenure at the Springboks.
He told them there would be trophies, and they did win them, in the form of a Tri-Nations trophy that first year and the World Cup four years down the line.
And after dragging the Brumbies up from the basement of Super Rugby into title contenders in just two short years, why shouldn’t White be confident? He has a lot more raw material to work with in Durban than he had in Canberra, and at the Kings Park press conference on Thursday he made no attempt to hide his admiration for the ability of some of the players who are now experienced members of the group but made their international debuts as youngsters when he was in charge of the Boks.
“He is a freak”, was the statement, or approximation to it, that he delivered when asked to describe both his new captain, Bismarck du Plessis, and the prodigiously talented Steyn.
His willingness to make the big call and change the captaincy was another example of the White hallmark in directness.
“It will be understandable if he is disappointed but it is not about the individual, the decision was made for the team,” said White of the deposed skipper Keegan Daniel.
The loose-forward led the Sharks to a notable triumph in the Currie Cup final in Cape Town just a few months ago, but if you understand the White philosophy the move makes sense. White will put the biggest pack that he will find possible to assemble onto the field in the important games, and when all the top players are available, Daniel might find it hard to find a place in the first-choice back row.
Du Plessis, as one of the finest players on the planet, will have influence with his teammates and hopefully, now that he fills a new role, with the referees, and his selection as vice-captain of the Springboks was an indication that Meyer also sees the value of the strongly built product of the eastern Free State leading from the front.
Unlike his predecessors this time last year, White at least has the assurance that comes with having almost a full squad available at the start of the campaign, with only fullback SP Marais and Japanese-based Ryan Kankowski and JP Pietersen of his likely first-choice players at this stage doubtful for the Super Rugby opener against the Bulls in Durban next month.
Even if there are injuries, however, White is happy with the depth of his squad.
“The positive flip side of having the Springboks away during November was that the other players got the opportunity to show me their capabilities and their work ethic and I was very impressed.”
Steve Tyler is not a name of universal renown at this moment but then no-one had heard of Fred Zeilinga last July. Tyler is the man likely to get his chance to show what he can do at fullback in the absence of Marais for next week’s pre-season friendly against Saracens in England.
Lambie won’t be travelling as he will be on honeymoon, but in his absence Tim Swiel will join Zeilinga in the battle to nail down the back-up flyhalf position.
Meanwhile, two of White’s prodigies at national age-group level who went on to serve him well when he was Springbok coach could be his biggest obstacles to his first mission – which is to win the South African conference trophy.
Stormers coach Allister Coetzee, himself a former White right-hand man, didn’t go as far as to name Jean de Villiers and Schalk Burger as joint captains when he made his announcement in Hawston in mid-week, but reading between the lines the old friends will be working in close partnership as they look to guide the Stormers forward.
And while it isn’t official yet because clearance papers still had to be signed by yesterday, last year’s SA Conference winners, the Bulls, should have another White stalwart, Victor Matfield, back on the playing field again as he launches a comeback that he hopes will see him playing at the 2015 World Cup.