Former Springbok coach and new Vodacom Bulls coach Jake White opens up in the third of three wide-ranging interviews.
Jake White is well aware of the challenge facing him in guiding the Vodacom Bulls back to the glory days of this proud union. But it’s one he is relishing as he likens the team to some of the greatest in world sport.
“Teams such as the LA Lakers or Real Madrid or Juventus or Liverpool are household names. And when you talk rugby, the Vodacom Bulls are right up there. It’s a great privilege for me to join them,” White said as he prepares for the next phase in his coaching career at the helm of the Pretoria-based side.
When choosing to accept this position, or any of the coaching positions he’s taken throughout his career, White says it’s always a very personal decision for him.
“When I finished with the Springboks and I was looking for a job, I was offered several. But I was always very careful to only join a club where I thought there was a synergy between my skill and the club’s DNA. I can’t just go to a club and coach for the sake of coaching.
“With the Brumbies, they were champions and a club with a great history and reputation around the world for the style of rugby they play. With Toyota Verblitz in Japan, they play in green and gold jerseys just like the Springboks. They started doing that in the 1950s already because they wanted to be like the Springboks. So there was a massive synergy about me going there.”
And now he joins the Bulls with the task of rebuilding this team’s rugby glory. But while White accepts that throughout his career he’s been perceived as the coach to call when a team needs rebuilding, he’d love to tick the one box that has as yet escaped him.
“I would’ve loved to have joined the Bulls when they were champions. One of my great wishes would’ve been to experience what it’s like to take over a championship team and continuing that success. Often what’s tended to happen in my coaching career is that people have seen me as a kind of revival doctor that comes in and turns teams around. I suppose that’s true. But I’ve never been fortunate to join a team that’s been dominating rugby at their level.”
White says his immediate task with the Bulls will be simply to listen to the players.
“The first thing I do is let the players talk. I let them explain where they are. You need to listen now. It’s not a case of just coming in saying this is what needs to happen. Now is the most important time to listen to the players. They’re in the situation and you’re coming from outside.
You need clarity in times like this when you’re building up a team again. I try to get each player focused again on what he is there for and what he needs to do, because then all the parts make sense and everyone fits in and things start coming together. So listening and then clarity are important for me now.
“And once they’ve told you, then the real test starts. Once they’ve told you as the coach what they think, then it’s up to them whether or not they want to change it.”
It’s here that White has some very clear ideas as to what he expects from players, and what he values in a player in one of his teams.
“Hard work and giving one hundred per cent are a given when I look at a player. That’s never been a bonus for me. But the value system of being honest and also showing that through tough times you’re the right guy - that’s important to me.
Often in my team talks I say, that when you pick your team it’s not the 23 that you need to ask if they are happy. It’s number 24 whose been left out. As a coach you have to be honest and tell number 24 why he’s not playing. The same challenge goes to players. It’s easy when we start with a squad for a player to tell you ‘I’m in’ and ‘I’m your man’ and ‘I’ll show you’, but those players generally show their true colours when they’re not in. Then you start to see who the real person is.
I look for that player who is consistent, who shows you that through the tough times as well as the good that he’s loyal and he’s your man. That far supersedes anything else for me. I’m not saying you can’t be unhappy or upset. That’s just human. But I value a player who is consistent in that. You can’t be one player when things are going well, but when they’re not you’re the worst guy to have in the team.”
White’s passion for rugby and coaching is undeniable, having taken him around the world and onto the biggest stages in the game. Now he heads to one of the most historic unions in South African rugby.
And when he’s asked if he had just one more day to spend in rugby, and where in the world that would be, his answer reflects far more of the masterful tactician he really is than he is willing to admit.