Duane Heath

Consistency will bear fruit

2004-08-27 10:49

Cape Town - Perhaps it was the complete absence of a tie, but Jake White looked a relaxed man this week.

Dressed in a navy jacket and open-collared shirt, the Springbok coach resembled someone who'd just hopped off a yacht as he breezed into the SA Rugby offices at Newlands.

Of course, it wasn't always like this.

Even a win over the All Blacks in Johannesburg couldn't hide the stress; only Durban and victory over the Wallabies would wash away the grey.

If I look back at the three-month journey that took the Springboks from the dead zone to a zenith of sorts, a few memories stand out: in Bloemfontein, walking from the team hotel to the ground and sensing something special in the air; at Ellis Park, reliving the dream of '95 all over again; and in Durban, where the Bok phoenix truly rose from the ashes of 2003.

But perhaps one image I'll remember is of White sitting down after the Ellis Park victory, the echoes of the crowd still filtering through the windows of the press box an hour after South Africa's 40-26 win.

Does this take the pressure off you, Jake? someone asked.

He thought about the question for a moment, and replied: "The pressure whenever you wear the Springbok jersey, people will never understand.

"Even when you think there's no pressure, there's always going to be pressure on a Springbok team. When we play sides we should beat, they say we should be thumping them. When we play great sides they say, can you do it?"

Keeping a team together

White's words were those of a man who knew that he was merely taking a breather after a steep but successful ascent, but that he had done no more than find a friendly flat section before tackling a steeper summit.

That zenith, of course, was Australia, and, as they say, the rest is history.

And the coach's words after the Tri-Nations triumph summed it up: "The pressure gets built up by sensing you can win. The crowd, and the people of South Africa don't realise what it means to a team when they stand behind us like they did today.

And then the statement that takes us into the future: "This team has only played eight Tests together but already we've seen the values of keeping a team together for long periods of time."

That future, of course, is the end-of-year European Grand Slam tour.

The big question is can the Boks make a clean sweep of the northern hemisphere?

It'll be tough, but if injuries to key players in the Currie Cup can be kept to a minimum, the Boks will know they can compete with anyone.

Keeping faith in his men

And herein lies perhaps White's greatest achievement thus far, apart from the obvious silverware: he has been able to achieve the seemingly impossible, by making consistent team selections and yet at the same time, and almost without anyone noticing, building a relatively large squad of players to draw from in the case of injury.

For it is a rather surprising fact that, is his eight Tests in charge this year, Jake White has done a bit of a "Straeuli" and used no less than 30 players.

One of the biggest criticisms Rudolf Straeuli copped was that he handed out caps as if they were going out of fashion, but where White and Straeuli differ is that White gives the impression that he has found his men, and will keep faith in them come hell or high water (probably at Twickenham).

And so now we have a situation where, in the inevitable event of an injury or two in the run-up to the tour, there are suitable back-up players in almost every position to slot in seamlessly if required: think Gaffie for Percy; AJ for anywhere in the second or back row; Jean de Villiers and Wayne Julies in midfield; Neil de Kock at scrumhalf and CJ van der Linde in the front row.

But perhaps the most interesting area in the coming months will be the form shown by the precocious Bryan Habana, as well as a host of relatively experienced campaigners who are just itching to play under White: Juan Smith, Werner Greeff, Jaque Fourie, Ashwin Willemse.

In closing this week, just one for the record: after the win over the Wallabies, the Springboks' all-time international records now looks like this: played 310, won 195, lost 97, drawn 18 - which means that a Grand Slam and a win over Argentina will bring up the double century of Bok victories since the first one in Cape Town, way back on September 5, 1896.

Send Duane your views on this column.

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