Jake White is a better coach now than when he won the World Cup in 2007. He is also the inspiration in Clyde Rathbone’s comeback.
White has always been a bloody good rugby coach, but as a young coach schooled in the South African system it meant White’s rugby education was as much about player pedigree as it was about coach’s paranoia.
South Africa is a wicked rugby system in that it is never as simple as a good coach coaches a good team. There are so many political agendas and I am not referring to race. School affiliation plays its part, north versus south has always been bigger than white versus black and English versus Afrikaans has always been more of a soul destroyer where it should be a a unifier of something stronger when two cultures combine for the purpose of one result.
White, born and raised Afrikaans, started his schooling as Jakobus Westerduim and finished it adopted to an English step father as the teenager Jake White. If anyone would be vulnerable to paranoia or bouts of insecurity then he, through no doing of his own, was a prime candidate.
His coaching career has been one of success but equally one of alienation as he has sought to convince the world of his identity and quality as being the best. It obviously goes deeper than rugby but White, in South Africa, was the victim of politics as much as he was taught to use the politics within rugby to further his own case.
White always wanted to be just a rugby coach and he wanted to be judged just as a rugby coach, but he also wanted comfort of how good he was as this coach. He felt victimised. He never felt he got his dues. He was never considered a candidate for the national coaching job but never doubted he was the best for the job.
When he won the game’s greatest prize he could not focus on the prize but was repulsed that those who had spurned him were self acclaimed saviours for appointing him. Those who wanted him to fail were preaching of how they made him succeed.
He had to leave South Africa to find the reason he loved the game. He had to coach rugby again and find joy from creating and not being accused of being the beneficiary of an already made creation.
When White got the Bok job in 2004 he initially flourished, then fell as all the paranoia and politics set in, and then he soared as he applied his mind to coaching a team, embracing expertise in the form of Eddie Jones and allowing the collective to be stronger than the insecurity of one individual.
White was brilliant in the Boks’ 2007 World Cup campaign, in his planning, in his squad selection and in his match 22 selections. If you like or dislike him it is difficult to counter his contribution. He is the first to put Eddie Jones on a pedestal but Eddie’s role, by his own admission, was secondary to what White had already put in place.
White, though, was never content in South Africa, even as a World Cup winner because there was too much pain associated with prejudice as far as he was concerned. He was always in confrontation and because of his nature he sought the confrontation as a means of fronting his opinion on South African rugby.
Some would describe him a rugby political animal, but the real man just wants to be the best rugby coach. Canberra, and the Brumbies, has allowed White to be the coach and rugby to be the game. In South Africa White was as much political pawn as he may have thought he was a political pioneer.
I am thrilled for him at what he has achieved with the Brumbies. He has special qualities as a coach and one of them is his loyalty to players. Those who he invests in respond and he has a whisperer’s touch when it comes to taking the wounded in something special and finding the wonder in that same individual.
We saw it with Percy Montgomery and Os du Randt with the Springboks and we are now seeing it with Clyde Rathbone. White has always believed Rathbone to be special, as a player and a person. He made him the SA under 21 captain in the year he coached the baby Boks to a world championship.
Rathbone chose an international career in Australia and made telling scoring contributions against White’s senior Boks, but Rathbone succumbed to a combination of injury and depression and his career ended with a crash. He retired three seasons ago but a year in White’s company also proved motivation enough that a return was possible.
White has made Rathbone believe again and Canberra and the Brumbies have made White belief that it is about the player, the game and that the result is not always the one on the scoreboard. Giving Rathbone hope and resurrecting life into the Brumbies will define White’s perceived status as much as winning a World Cup with the Springboks. What he has done in Canberra, as a man who can inspire, define him even more than what he did as a coach in Paris in 2007.
By Mark Keohane