October 20 must be celebrated

In the latest issue of Business Day Sports Monthly Jake White reflects on October 20 and the year that followed.

Jake White spent the afternoon of October 20 this year watching his son playing water polo. That night he had a quiet dinner at home. Earlier in the morning he had sent a general text message to the entire 2007 Springbok World Cup squad once again congratulating them on being victorious and for bringing so much cheer to South Africans.

One year had passed from the greatest night of White’s coaching career. In that year White had found love and spirituality, but what he has not found is any form of acceptance from South African rugby’s decision makers. One year on from the glory of that night in Paris when locals dressed in green and the world seemed to be South African the only consistent for White is the continued alienation from South African rugby bosses.

There was no phone call from anyone relevant in the South African rugby administration on October 20, 2008. There was no text message and there was no email. One year on and there still wasn’t any form of congratulations. South African Rugby Union president Regan Hoskins, in Paris for the World Cup final in 2007, had personally congratulated White but a year later even Hoskins was among the many absentees when it came to a pat on the back.

White and his Springboks did something incredible in 2007, but when White speaks you’d think they’d committed a crime.

White can’t get a job in South African rugby, but Rudolf Straeuli can. The relevance is Straeuli presided over the darkest hour of Springbok rugby and the worst ever South African World Cup campaign in 2003 when the Boks were eliminated in the quarter-finals.

Straeuli will forever be linked to the infamous Kamp Staaldraad, when Springbok players were humiliated, starved of water and food and forced to fight each other in preparation for the World Cup. White’s legacy is coaching the Springboks to World Cup victory. Yet Straeuli has a job in South African rugby and White can’t get one.

‘I find it amazing,’ says White in comparing his situation to Straeuli’s. ‘I also can’t figure out just why it is that people in South African rugby find it so hard to embrace success. It is as if success scares them and mediocrity gives them comfort. It shouldn’t be that way. Why do we prepare to win the World Cup? To be successful, yet on both occasions when South Africa has won the tournament there has been a reluctance to take the good from that and build. There was resentment towards the 1995 World Cup winners and (coach) Kitch (Christie) was ungraciously shifted aside. And 13 years later it feels the same. It should be different. We did something wonderful in Paris a year ago. We gave South Africans something to feel good about and we gave our youngsters heroes and something to be inspired by and aspire to. That is what October 20, 2007 was about, but a year later and all you have are the politicians fighting about the future of the Springbok emblem and the racial make-up of the team. It is 1996 revisited and that is particularly sad when you think of where we should be and what we should represent to world rugby.’

White’s detractors argue he is as culpable as the game’s administration for creating an atmosphere of resentment. He has also been accused of being about himself and his ego and his flirting with the possibility of a consultancy with the British and Irish Lions for their tour of South Africa in 2009 has angered the local administration.

White rejects any suggestion he would have betrayed South African rugby. He says it is about the future for him and that he knows he can make a contribution to the game in this country. If it is not going to be through an official channel then he will explore other means. He wants to coach coaches and he wants to help improve the rugby intellect of coaches. South Africa, he says, should be the prime destination for those wanting to learn more about the game, but the reality is no one comes to South Africa to become a better coach because the investment has never been made in coaches and neither is there a system that nurtures quality coaches.

‘There is a focus on players and player academies, but someone has to coach them, and unfortunately there is little to inspire young coaches in this country. I believe I can make a difference and I will. It is no secret that I want to be involved in rugby in this country. Rugby is what I know and it is what inspires me. ‘

White says he is a changed man and that he is finally at peace with himself.

‘The four years I coached the Springboks were incredibly intense and the situation was aggravated by my home circumstances because for much of that time I was living the pretence of a family man when in fact I had moved out of the house and was on my own. It was a lonely time and one in which my relationship with my two boys also suffered. Now it is about rebuilding that relationship and rebuilding my own happiness.’

White refers to spirituality more than he does religion and he also speaks of emotional wealth as having more significance in his life than anything material.

‘I don’t own a house and I don’t own a car and I feel no pressure to judge myself on how many assets I have. I am in a good space and I am content, which is something I wasn’t six months ago when loneliness was driving me to destruction. I was the centre of all the attention and feted everywhere I went but the truth is I was the loneliest person in the room. I couldn’t cope with the loneliness and the lonelier it got the more I found myself in a room with all these people around me and I could feel myself imploding.’

Rugby had always been White’s escape. In those desperate times of a failing marriage he could always put on his tracksuit and apply his mind to his passion of coaching rugby. With that gone, the socializing became an escape.

One function after the other. One golf day after the other. One drink after the other. One lonely night after another. White, six months ago, was an emotional mess.

‘Something had to give and it did. I embarrassed myself at a speaking engagement and it was among the lowest points of my life. I couldn’t recognize myself and I had to admit that what I had was not what I wanted. I wanted to be happy and most of all I wanted to smile again. My divorce was not pretty and I never want to go through that messiness again. I also knew that I had to be in rugby in some or other capacity because it is the game I love. It is my passion.’

Eddie Jones, Director of rugby at Saracens and White’s specialist coaching consultant at the World Cup, offered White a consultancy at Saracens, with White involved one week a month until March, 2009.

The duo will also combine to coach the British Barbarians against the Wallabies at the new Wembley on December 3rd.

White once again is thinking rugby and not marketing and socialising. The Jonny he is comfortable discussing is Mr Wilkinson and not Mr Walker. If he felt self pity and a victim six months ago, he now feels in charge and liberated.

‘I am alive again,’ says White. ‘I have found a very special person whom I want to go home to every night and it is the simplicity of my days that make them so powerful. I have time to reflect and time to get excited about what can be achieved in my personal and professional life. It feels good and it feels right.’

October 20, this year, was a quiet one for White, but he says in the future it should be more festive and one guaranteed to bring a smile to South Africans.

‘Public holidays have been given for less,’ jokes White. ‘Seriously, it is a very special day for our sport and our country and we should be celebrating because it honours what those boys achieved and it challengers the next generation to give us another significant date. Celebrating what happened on October 20, 2007 does not mean we live in the past; it simply means we remember a day that was bigger than any individual or any ego or agenda in our rugby. It was a good day for our rugby … a very good one.’