THE first thing Jake White says when he sits down at a table at the Palazzo Hotel at Montecasino is, “Grey College still going alright ... still pumping out the players?”
I tell him they lost for the first time in three years a few weeks ago to Paarl Gymnasium. He knows this of course. “I heard so. They won’t be too happy,” he says.
Cheekily I ask him if he wants to come back to South Africa and coach Grey’s first XV. “Why, are they looking for a coach?”
That’s White for you. He knows his rugby, from high school level to the very top and the fact that he’s spent the last nine months in Australia, this being his first trip back to South Africa in this time, doesn’t mean he hasn’t kept an eye on what’s going on in Springbok country. Rugby is his passion, it runs in his blood and he loves nothing more than to be involved in the game. Coaching is not only a job to him ... it’s his life, the only thing that matters. And that’s why he’s now involved with the ACT Brumbies of Australia, a place he calls home, but never forgetting he is a South African.
White hit the headlines last week when some reporters twisted his comments when he was asked about his return home (to South Africa) with the Brumbies. White said South Africa was no longer home, and he stands by that comment, but he says his words were wrongly interpreted.
“My home is in Canberra now, but I am a South African. I’ve made a commitment to the Brumbies just as I expect the players who come from Sydeny and Queensland, but play for the Brumbies, to be committed.
“Many coaches go overseas to earn a living, but most commute between home and where they work. They leave their families behind, their houses and furniture, but they’re never fully integrated in the community where they work. What I’m saying to the people of Canberra is I live here now ... I’m one of you. I’m at every training session, I’m fully committed ... this is my home. But I’ll always be a South African and it makes me flippin’ proud to see the South African teams doing well.”
After winning the World Cup with the Boks in 2007, White was, like most national head coaches in South Africa, tossed aside and forgotten. He tried to get involved with the South African Rugby Union, in any way they could use him, but no-one was interested. He says he’s still surprised that Saru aren’t keen on keeping former Bok coaches involved in the game. Peter de Villiers, White’s successor, has also stated in recent days his astonishment that Saru aren’t interested in using him.
“To be honest, I’ve never been able to grasp it ... Peter’s frustrations now are what mine were a few years ago. I fully understand where he’s coming from,” said White.
“I’ve coached at every level in this country, from under-14s right through to the top, and Saru are telling me they can’t use me. There are hundreds of school coaches out there that need mentoring and coaching, we have club players who need guidance, there’s the Varsity Cup ... you’d think that it would be a given that once you’ve served your time and been loyal to your country, you’d be worth something.
“It’s as if the Bok job is the last you’ll have in South Africa. It’s crazy. What Saru are saying is that when you’re done with the Boks your career is over ... and that’s whether you win a World Cup or not.”
After being sent to the scrap heap, according to White, he dabbled a bit in presenting coaching courses and for a brief spell helped the Lions when Eugene Eloff was sacked as coach. White, though, wanted something more. He’s a born coach and when nothing came up in South Africa he looked overseas. There were a couple of options available to him but in the end he settled on the Brumbies.
“I’m really so happy to be back in coaching. I sat around for a long time just waiting for something to come up. But now I’m where I belong ... on the rugby field. I can talk rugby again and I’m loving life.”
White admits, though, things are very different in Australia than in South Africa when it comes to rugby union and it can be tough at times.
“We’re not spoilt for choice. Rugby union is the fourth choice of sport in Australia, behind Aussie Rules, rugby league and cricket. Soccer’s also coming through big-time. If you want to read about rugby in the papers, you’ve got to turn six pages in and then you’ll find a small one column piece of 200 words.
“But it’s a nice challenge, I’m out of my comfort zone and it’ll make me a better coach.”
The Brumbies are flying high at the moment, leading the Australian Conference, and White says that’s purely down to the young players being committed to the job. “No-one gave them a chance at the start of the year, but they’ve worked hard, bought into the plan and their commitment is unbelievable.”
But back to the Boks. The national team have a new head coach in Heyneke Meyer and there’s talk Victor Matfield will come out of retirement to lead the team against England in June.
White says he understands Meyer’s thinking. “In a nutshell, the Boks are in a completely different state to the other international teams. They’ve got a new coaching staff and it’s a new era of players. With the likes of Schalk Burger, Juan Smith and Jean de Villiers injured you’re going to need stability and if that means bringing Victor back then I understand it. I brought Percy (Montgomery) and Os (du Randt) back and we won a World Cup.
“As for Heyneke, well, he’s been on every shortlist for the last three or four coaches. His appointment is long overdue.”
And what about the talent coming through in South Africa? “For me the rising star is Johan Goosen (the Cheetahs flyhalf). For so long now people have asked why South Africa can’t produce world class No 10s. Now there’s Goosen ... and that’s taking nothing away from Naas Botha, who’s a legend, Henry Honiball or Butch James. Or Morné Steyn. But for Goosen to be doing what he is doing, at such a young age is incredible.
“If he was a Kiwi kid we’d all be asking, ‘where do they get these guys?’
“If I was Heyneke I’d get him involved with the Boks as soon as possible. Every other nation would pick him. I’m not saying get rid of Steyn, I’m saying Springbok rugby must groom Goosen. He’s as good as Jonny Wilkinson was at 18 and he can reach the same heights Wilkinson has.”
Right now, all White’s attention is focused on the Brumbies, but he’ll never rule out returning to coach in South Africa. Or anywhere else, for that matter. “I want to coach an international team again. I want to win another World Cup. I don’t know what the future holds for me, I don’t know where I’m going to end up, but as long as I’m coaching I’ll be a happy man.” – The Star