Former Springbok coach and new Vodacom Bulls coach Jake White opens up in the first of three wide-ranging interviews.
It is on the hardened fields of schools around South Africa where Jake White believes the true strength of Springbok rugby lies. As long as a young boy has the desire to play his heart out for his school, White believes the future of Springbok rugby is secure.
“Schools are the saving grace of our rugby, and I believe schools are becoming more and more important to South African rugby,” White said in an exclusive interview as he prepares for the next phase in his coaching career at the helm of the Vodacom Bulls.
“The one thing that has remained consistent is that our schoolboy rugby is still very competitive and it’s still very prestigious for a boy to represent his First XV. As much as club rugby has changed and junior provincial rugby has changed, the one thing that’s never changed is that loyalty and passion for First XV rugby at schoolboy level,” White said.
It is perhaps hardly surprising that as a former schoolmaster himself, White should believe so implicitly in the value of schoolboy rugby. He has already earmarked a meeting with some of the major schools surrounding Loftus Versfeld and elsewhere in Pretoria as amongst his priorities when he is able to take up his position with the Bulls following the national lockdown due to Covid-19.
“Schools are very important to me. One thing I missed in my time coaching around the world is that I never had the interaction with the great schools in those countries. As a schoolteacher and old boy of a good school and having gone through education and studied teaching with others, it’s always been a link and a bit of a saviour for me.
“In South Africa I could pick up the phone and phone a headmaster or a First XV coach or even a schoolteacher and ask about a particular schoolboy rugby player. But in my time overseas I couldn’t do that. So schools are very important to me.”
It’s precisely the one accolade that escaped him in his own schoolboy rugby career that he uses as the example of how important the pride and passion within schoolboy rugby is to the ongoing success of South African rugby.
“All I wanted as a schoolboy was to get full colours. I played First XV rugby at Prep School and at High School, and I was captain of the Prep School team, but I was never awarded colours. Receiving a colours blazer at school is a massive thing. But the great memory I have is that after our Rugby World Cup triumph in 2007 I was invited to both schools and was given honours blazers, which is the highest achievement you can get.”
The very things he experienced in his own schoolboy rugby career has heavily influenced what White believes is the one characteristic he believes any coach should have, and which he places great emphasis on in his own coaching.
“As a boy going through school, I couldn’t take it if coaches weren’t honest with me. I think some coaches find it hard to tell the truth for whatever reason. But I just couldn’t handle that. If I was dropped and I went to the coach to discuss it, I always wanted honesty. Sometimes hearing what the coach thought wasn’t nice, but at least he was telling me what he really thought.
“I’ve always promised myself that the one thing I would like to always do is just be honest with people, and with players if I have to drop them or leave them out.”
As he prepares to return to Pretoria, memories of school come flooding back to White. As do memories of Jacarandas, the famous Hatfield Bakery, the Hillcrest Swimming Pool, and afternoons spent kicking for poles at the University of Pretoria’s LC de Villiers sports grounds.
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There are also memories of probably the most difficult time in his life.
“You know, there is a sense of a homecoming for me. It’s quite interesting in that it wasn’t a great time for me because my folks split up at that time. Everything that happens in your childhood and formative years make up who you are. As a young boy, being away from home and being on my own when my parents split up and I went to boarding school was tough. But in hindsight I don’t think I would be where I am today had I not gone through that as a youngster. I learnt a lot and the people that came across my path, positively or negatively, influenced the way I wanted to live my life and become the man I am.
“And a young boy’s memory is a funny thing. Despite that, I have very fond memories of Pretoria and that time. So there is a massive amount of reminiscing and memories that go through my mind, and the sense that I’m almost going back to my childhood again.”
And of course, there are memories of being a young schoolboy and going to Loftus Versfeld to see the mighty Northern Transvaal (now the Bulls).
“We didn’t have international rugby in those days because of the international sanctions, so provincial rugby was everything. Northern Transvaal was such a dominant team, and I remember as a youngster that it wasn’t often you’d go to Loftus and see Northern Transvaal lose. Everybody at that time wore Northern Transvaal jerseys, and the fanaticism of those Northern Transvaal supporters I saw as a kid is forever etched into my mind.”