Politics, backstabbing and … SA rugby

2007-12-08 00:00

IN BLACK AND WHITE

The Jake White Story with Craig Ray

(Zebra Press, Cape Town)

It is a book about political infighting and intrigue, back-stabbing, blackmail, conspiracies and threats. Only in good old South Africa could it also be a book about rugby.

Jake White’s autobiography, In Black and White, should be prescribed reading for any coach even vaguely contemplating taking charge of the Springbok team.

“I wish the future Springbok coach good luck — he’s going to need it,” is White’s closing line to this book.

The underlining message is approach the Bok job with extreme caution, wear a flak jacket, never mind the coaching manual but brush up on your politics, make friends in high places, watch your back and be prepared to sell your principles.

White admits that he came close to doing just that, dumping his coaching principles, over the sordid Luke Watson affair shortly before the start of the 2007 international season.

Brian Bierbuyck, who was White’s lawyer at the time, also represented the Watsons, and he had been asked to pass on a message to the Bok coach.

The proposal, says White, was in a series of nine demands that would involve the selection of Luke Watson for the Bok squad, the Test team and the World Cup. In return, White’s contract with SA Rugby would extend beyond the 2007 World Cup. Point nine, says White, was that a failure to co-operate would result in him losing his job before the World Cup.

“The ultimatum was pick Luke or lose your job,” says White.

What is even more remarkable is that White stooped so low as to agree to the deal “so that I could move on and coach the team without any more interference”.

The next day White’s agent (Craig Livingstone) contacted Bierbuyck to cement the deal, only to find that “the Watsons had backed down”.

“My guess is that they [the Watsons] had tried to pressurise SA Rugby in the same way, and met some resistance.”

Of course, the Watson saga continued to haunt White. Finally, and behind White’s back, the name of the Western Province flank was added to White’s training squad for the international season and, in the face of opposition from the Bok coach, selectors and senior players, forced into the Test team to play Samoa. Watson, hardly surprisingly, had a patchy game, went back to Cape Town and was hardly mentioned again. And all this because his dad knows someone.

Quite how White was able to remain in the job for four years under intense pressure from the public, the media and, above all, his rugby bosses is a tribute to his resilience, passion for coaching, fierce ambition and deep desire to win the Rugby World Cup in 2007.

White had his dream team at the World Cup and his players gave him a romantic finish to his Springbok coaching career. In the final analysis, the players he had supported so loyally down the years repaid him handsomely when it mattered most.

White’s autobiography would have been published whether the Boks triumphed in Paris or not, but winning the Webb Ellis Trophy will be a major boost for book sales.

In contrast, down in New Zealand, well-known broadcaster Murray Deaker was all set to launch his new book a week after the RWC final. Indeed his publishers had already designed a cover with the All Blacks prancing about with the World Cup.

The book was apparently going to be called, “HENRY’S ALL BLACKS: How the 2007 Rugby World Cup was won.”

Ouch.

The All Blacks did not have their happy ending, but White did, and more should perhaps have been made of it. Only 36 pages are devoted to the Springboks at the RWC 2007 in France, and there will be many who will be disappointed that White did not cover the triumph in greater detail, delving into the minds of the players, the tactics, the secrets and the sideshows that were not reported by the media at the time.

How did he keep the combative Butch James, wh

o played a decisive role in the overall victory, on the straight and narrow? What planning went into the Bok scrum ahead of the final, and after they had been badly exposed by the Argentinians in the semi-finals?

Still, with the respected Craig Ray as his co-author, White has produced a readable, intriguing account of how SA Rugby works. An insider at SA Rugby, someone who knows how the power game is played there, reckons White’s story “is fairly accurate, though at times facts are twisted to suit him”.

The pity is that the fairytale finish to White’s Springbok career, the heady triumph in France and a time when rugby finally took over and politics was forgotten, is covered fleetingly and in such a rush.

The reason is obvious:

Christmas is coming,

The geese are getting fat,

Please put a penny,

In old Jake’s

hat.

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