White still has to win us over

2013-12-21 00:00

HE has the uncanny knack of making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear but the Sharks are looking to Jake White to turn good into much, much better.

White, starting with the Baby Boks at the U21 World Cup in 2002, has enjoyed remarkable success in transforming young, unheralded teams into champions.

Appointed Springbok coach in 2004, he moulded a confused, disjointed squad into the World Cup champions of 2007. And this year, he steered a bunch of relatively untried, little known Brumbies to the Super Rugby final, and to within six points of beating the champion Chiefs (27-22) in New Zealand.

But he now faces a fresh challenge at King’s Park with Sharks supporters looking to the 50-year-old to inspire a settled squad, an experienced, talented and expensive one, to Super Rugby glory.

The Sharks, not for the first time, will be one of the Super Rugby favourites, when they set out on a fresh campaign in mid-February.

They ended a see-sawing, largely unhappy 2013 on a high with their Currie Cup triumph in Cape Town, a nightmare turned into unexpected glory by a healthy mix of battle-hardened Springboks and talented youth.

White says that it will be a change working with an organised, successful squad and does not want to be remembered as the fellow who is called in “to pick up teams from the ashes”.

White says that he has now joined the Currie Cup champions, with strong foundations, 11 Springboks and aspiring young players.

“It’s different for me, because I never wanted to just become a hospital-case coach. I’d like to take over a side that is doing well.

“Thank goodness that I’m taking over at a team that have got things right, who have a young dynamic CEO [John Smit], a winning culture, and a host of Springboks who were on tour [in Europe last month].”

White has told the players that they are potential Super Rugby winners but he has also said that not all is rosy in the Sharks’ garden, pointing out that they won only half of their 16 games and finished eighth on the overall log, behind the Bulls, Cheetahs and Stormers in the South African conference.

While praising the Currie Cup champions, and head coach Brendan Venter, White says his challenge is more daunting. Venter’s focus, he says, was on turning Super Rugby losers into Currie Cup winners in a couple of months.

“My emphasis as director of rugby is not just about the next three months. It’s also about where the U19s are going to be in four years’ time. So my planning is completely different.”

What will have lifted White was that several of his senior players were powerful influences in an improving Springbok team this year. Willem Alberts, Bismarck du Plessis, Jannie du Plessis and Beast Mtawarira were regular selections in a physical Springbok pack, JP Pietersen is an international wing of the highest quality, the maturing Pat Lambie and Pieter-Steph du Toit are waiting just off stage and Frans Steyn, when back to full fitness, will return to the Springbok squad.

There are, of course, still concerns. Will Pietersen and Ryan Kankowski, returning from club duties in Japan in February, hit the ground running and who will replace the injured SP Marais at fullback in the early rounds of Super Rugby action?

But White, with a healthy spread of experience and talent, has options in every position. It is in the backrow that the competition for places will be most intense. White has five Springboks (Willem Alberts, Jean Deysel, Marcell Coetzee, Keegan Daniel and Ryan Kankowski), along with veteran Jacques Botes and the blossoming Tera Mtembu, all squabbling for three places.

Yet, in spite of all these loose forward riches, White has gone shopping for another former Springbok in Luke Watson, the controversial and often outspoken Southern Kings loose forward.

White’s surprising approach was this week made public by Watson’s agent Mark Keohane, who said that the Sharks coach would make a final decision about a possible signing next month. Watson is recovering from ankle surgery but says he will be ready to play again after the first couple of rounds of Super Rugby.

The move has startled South African rugby. Watson, who once poured scorn — and threatened to vomit — on the Springbok jersey, has clashed publicly with White and Sharks CEO John Smit in the past.

White was forced to select Watson in 2007 for political reasons but he was concerned that the player would have a divisive influence on the Springbok team. Captain Smit said that he did when he was selected and described Watson as a “cancer” in the Springbok dressing-room.

This is the player that White, and presumably Smit, now want to bring to King’s Park.

It seems a quite unnecessary risk, given the Sharks’ depth at loose forward, and one which could divide both the Sharks’ senior players and the supporters.

Still, the Sharks are looking in good shape for the 2014 season — at least, on paper.

As the unfortunate John Plumtree found earlier this year, the best laid plans can go horribly awry as injuries mount and form dips during an extended and hugely demanding tournament.

White appears to have the tools to get the job done but his test will be whether he can have the same impact on battle-hardened troops as he does on rookies.

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