Healthy Jake White wants Bulls to play with a smile after ICU stay ‘with pipes down my throat’

“An experience like this greatly helps you to coach better, because the perspective it provides means you talk differently – from a place of life experience,” says Bulls coach Jake White. Photo: Willem Loock/BackpagePix

“An experience like this greatly helps you to coach better, because the perspective it provides means you talk differently – from a place of life experience,” says Bulls coach Jake White. Photo: Willem Loock/BackpagePix

Published Feb 3, 2023


Cape Town – Jake White says he is fighting fit and “can’t wait to get back to work” and take charge of the Bulls for their upcoming United Rugby Championship clash against the Stormers.

Since taking charge of the Bulls in 2020, White has had to endure a few battles off the field.

He contracted Covid-19 in late 2020, adding that the virus “really did knock me down” and while lying in bed, he heard how some of his friends and former colleagues – among them former Bok team manager Arthob Petersen – had passed away.

In October 2021, he fell off his bicycle and sustained a broken collarbone while on a Saturday morning ride in Pretoria, and had to undergo surgery.

In early January, White started feeling unwell while on tour with the Bulls ahead of their URC match against the Dragons in Wales, and was unable to attend the match at Rodney Parade, which they won 29-14.

Upon his return to Pretoria, he had an abdominal operation and was given time off to recover. He is feeling much better now, and will be back with the team for their big URC showdown with the Stormers at Loftus Versfeld on February 18 (5.05pm kickoff).

“I see things completely differently now. Rugby is fantastic, and working in professional sport and coaching in a league like the URC is a privilege. I’m still driven to be competitive, and I never want to be in a place where I’m doing this job for the sake of it,” White said in a URC statement this week.

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“But, after this experience, I’m working with a completely different framework on how to motivate players, and how to get balance in life.

“Life experiences like these really make you grow as a coach. As much as the game, technology and coaching methods have changed considerably in recent years, an experience like this greatly helps you to coach better, because the perspective it provides means you talk differently – from a place of life experience.”

Having coached for 40 years, White has seen and done it all across the world, from schools rugby at Jeppe in Johannesburg to the Springboks’ 2007 Rugby World Cup glory, and stints at teams in Australia, France, Japan, Tonga and the Sharks in Durban.

He has always been a tough taskmaster, and retains that competitive edge. But following his operation, he feels that he can assist the players off the pitch as well.

“Lying in intensive care with pipes down your throat gives you time to think clearly. It’s an experience that has taught me about balance, and how quickly things can change. Rugby isn’t the be-all and end-all, even if you’re as competitive as I am. And what that means is I’m going to be very different as a coach,” White said.

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“I can now use real-life experience to talk about how quickly it can all be over. I’m going to coach with a focus on playing with a smile – and living it, not just saying it.

“I’m going to actively push that as part of my mantra now, and for the players to genuinely smile because it’s fun, it’s a joy and a privilege to be able to get to play.”

But there’s no doubt that White would want to put one over the Stormers again, with the Cape side having won their last four encounters.

The Bulls also want to stay in the race for a home quarter-final and even semi-final. They are currently in fourth position on 40 points after 13 matches, with the second-placed Stormers on 45 from 12 ahead of Saturday’s clash against the Sharks in Durban.

“Look, the doctor told me that the first question I asked as I came out of the theatre was, ‘Did the Stormers win?’ I went in while they were playing Glasgow, and the reason I wanted to know was because of the implications to our campaign and because of my competitive edge. I will never lose that,” White said.

“But it also made me think: If we were unbeaten and I had died that night on the operating table, would it have made a difference? Would it have made me feel any different, if we had not lost a game all season?

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“Now I’m looking forward to getting back and being the guy who really keeps loving rugby.

“It hasn’t always been like that. When you get burnt or scarred by the game, you feel very low at times. But this sort of thing makes you realise, in the bigger scheme, to keep the highs and lows in context – and to keep it real.

“I can’t wait to get back to work, to exude the excitement I want these guys to live by every weekend.

“I see things completely differently (in the URC playoff race)… we’re in a wonderful place. That doesn’t mean we’re going to win it, but we’re in it.

“The truth is we’re not good enough to have the high road in every competition we play in. We’re not Leinster, yet.

“We strive to be the team that runs out at home in the playoffs of multiple competitions, but we’re still putting a team together, and sometimes you’ve got to go on the low road and play away in the playoffs.

“But it’s all about perspective. Right now, we are seven points ahead of where we were this time last year, and we made the final. And this season, we’ve played more away games than any other team, and that’s in a competition where the win-rate away from home is 25 percent.

“If you put that all together, we are very much alive in this race. And take it from someone who knows the feeling when I tell you, all we need to be is alive.”