Firing Jake White now would be adding to the crisis and not the solution. White has to stay as Bok coach, but he also has to embrace some radical change.
At the beginning of the year White boldly declared he had pretty much picked his World Cup squad. It was crazy talk and as much was said at the time. White was reminded that there was not just one Super 14, Tri Nations and end of year tour still to come. There was in fact two Super 14s, two Tri Nations, two Currie Cups and one end of year tour. That’s a whole lot of rugby.
Within six months of making that statement, more than half of White’s World Cup certainties are either crocked, out of form or six months too old for test rugby. Never underestimate the magnetic appeal of youth and also don’t make the mistake of interpreting being too old for test rugby as something that is measured from a date of birth certificate.
White made mistakes in not resting his established stars for last year’s end of season tour. He stuck with the same old same old to play the Pumas, Wales and then France. It was a missed opportunity. So too was the warm-up match against the World XV and the two-test home series against an ordinary Scottish team that talked a game far greater than their natural talents allowed them to play.
There has not been a succession plan since the 2004 Tri Nations was won on league bonus points. There has only been a false dawn and White has been his own worst enemy.
But that does not make him a bad coach or mean he has no role to play. All the negatives of the last year have to be counter-balanced with what White has achieved since 2004. When put on the scale, it tips in White’s favour.
The Bok coach deserves the support of an administration that is willing him to fail ever since he held a gun to their heads, but then did not have the conviction to pull the trigger. As such he is now the one with the gun to his head. White played dangerous games and lost. But the administration must be bigger than the mind games and they must look to the well-being of Bok rugby.
White must put behind him all the contradictions and all the fearless talk of the last year, when his ego loomed larger than even Bono’s.
There’s a great little joke that asks what the difference is between God and Bono? The answer: “God doesn’t strut around Dublin believing he is Bono.’
The same could be said of White in the last six months. He did not allow for his views to be challenged. He did not believe they could be challenged. He had all the answers. At least that’s what he thought.
White’s world, in Cape Town and in Brisbane, has been crushed. There was not a bubble to prick. His was more a planet that imploded.
But he survives and the gamekeepers of rugby in South Africa need to restore life to White. They need to revive the 2004 version that arrived loaded with ideas, innovation and humility. The guy who said he would coach the Boks for free and not the guy who a month ago wanted financial security until the end of 2009.
The squad has to change. Too many players in White’s line-up are not good enough. The support staff also has to change. Too few provide an alternative to White. And the Boks need to invest in a team manager, worthy of the description, and a full-time defence coach, whose presence is constant and not an event.
It is no coincidence that when Gary Gold worked for five successive weeks with the Boks in 2004, they were precise in their execution of the rush defence. They all understood it. They all believed in the system and with Gold hands on in the education thereof, White could watch from a distance with the necessary clarity.
Then White took charge of the backs, the defence and the technical analysis. His vision became blurred. He favoured players, refused to see their faults and backed them despite the obvious limitations. He was too close to make the call and made none, preferring to preach the gospel of his chosen few, while immaturely trashing the claims of those outside of the inner circle.
It also helped that he had a saint in Schalk Burger who guided his every move.
Burger is gone, at least for six months, and White must rethink strategy and selection. Clearly his fellow selectors carry paperbags as influence. There is no substance to the selection panel, otherwise how do you explain the continued omission of Schalk Brits, Luke Watson, Ruan Pienaar and Brad Barritt, among others.
But no one challenged that.
White, the slate wiped clean after Brisbane and the away leg of the Tri Nations, needs to do the same thing when it comes to players. He needs to forget the trash talk against those players he prejudged on hearsay and hairstyles and he needs to embrace the leaders and strong characters who will make him successful once again.
White was often quoted as saying that he (alone) would not win South Africa the World Cup. What he did not add was that he (alone) could lose South Africa the World Cup.
White needs a new team, more than South Africa needs a new coach.
If he is not capable of putting together that team, then SARU’s President’s Council needs to give him two selectors with balls big enough to make the calls that will win us games.