Super Rugby

Why Jake has mountain to climb at Loftus

Jake White (Getty Images)
Jake White (Getty Images)

Overall rugby brain, coaching pedigree and enriching volume of global rugby “air miles”? Hard to dispute, even if his player relations side of things has occasionally been open to question.

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But those qualities alone will not mean that Jake White is about to whisk the Bulls off quickly on a magic carpet ride.

I believe the biggest impediment to the Springbok World Cup 2007-winning coach sparking a renaissance at Loftus - with respect to the squad as it stands - is the lack of compelling enough existing raw materials for him to work with.

There is inevitable talk that White assuming the director of rugby role (soon enough including the “tracksuit” duty too) will lead to an influx of decent South African names from abroad, considering that the Bulls are backed nowadays by the stabilising financial muscle of billionaire co-owners Johann Rupert and Patrice Motsepe.

Yet that is still easier said than done, especially with the rand tottering like never before against major foreign currencies in the wake of the coronavirus crisis and an ill-timed Moody’s downgrading of the country’s debt rating to junk status.

Even if an array of proven figures, including some former Bulls favourites, are recruited over the coming months with Super Rugby 2021 in mind - 2020 seems a near-certain write-off - moulding them into the mix might require time; White has wisely warned already that his plan for the franchise will essentially have to be a long-term one.

But does he have the patience, and will those working under his command possess the durability of appetite, to turn things around at the home of three-time past winners between 2007 and 2010?

Keep in mind that each of his last two major Super Rugby stints, at the Brumbies and then Sharks, ended up being only of two-year duration each (one full Super Rugby season in Durban), despite some variably healthy fruits to show in each instance.

The Canberra-based outfit catapulted from a mid-table finish overall in White’s exploratory first season (and no knockouts qualification) in 2012 to winners of the Australian conference and eventual, narrow losing finalists to the Chiefs in 2013.

White then shook the franchise a couple of months later by quitting with two years left of his contract for “personal reasons” and amid headlines Down Under that “his heart’s not in it (anymore)”.

A big difference with White’s Brumbies stint, when weighed against the looming challenge in Pretoria, is that he worked for the most part with an already mature, Wallaby-laden squad including such legendary names at the time as George Smith, Stephen Moore and Ben Alexander.

Unless intended player acquisitions from elsewhere are widespread and top-drawer, the Bulls group that White will begin working with are more notable for not, in stark contrast, including a raft of first-choice Springbok players.

So often a domestic superpower of the past, whether in Super Rugby or the Currie Cup, the 2020 Bulls are marked by the volume of largely callow or plain moderately-talented characters in their midst – an unfortunate legacy of the latest, enormous wave of departures from the corral following incumbent coach Pote Human steering them to within a credible whisker of the semis in 2019 (they were edged out 35-28 by the Hurricanes in a gripping Wellington quarter-final).

Among many others, the Bulls of this year’s suspended Super Rugby have been stripped of heavyweight international figures like Jesse Kriel, Handre Pollard, Duane Vermeulen (though he is earmarked for a heartening return to Loftus soon), RG Snyman, Lood de Jager and Jason Jenkins.

That is a major surrender of class, expertise and in several cases pure, essential “grunt”.

A glance at the team who frittered away a 17-0 lead in Brisbane to lose 41-17 to the Reds in their last recorded outing of 2020 - a damaging fifth defeat in six matches - only confirms how few current Bulls are genuine Springbok front-liners.

Elusive fullback Warrick Gelant is yet to consistently deliver the sort of all-round performances to make him a shoe-in for the Bok No 15 shirt, scrumhalf Embrose Papier has slipped some way down the scrumhalf pipeline for international purposes, wrecking-ball open-sider Marco van Staden is simply vying with umpteen high-calibre candidates for SA loose-forward slots, and even Trevor Nyakane has fresh work to do to seize back first-choice Bok tighthead status.

Injured in game one of the 2019 World Cup campaign against New Zealand, Nyakane must prove all over again that his credentials are superior to both Frans Malherbe and Vincent Koch after their respective, stirring finishes to the Webb Ellis Cup hunt.

The Bulls have an indisputably smart, if traditionally single-minded new man at the tiller ... but one who has his work cut out for him, at least initially.

My wallet, for what it’s worth, remains zipped in these precarious times when it comes to predicting just what degree of impact the 56-year-old will have on the sleeping giant that is the Bulls.

One confident forecast: at very least his tenure, whatever its timespan, will be interesting.

Jake White jobs always are.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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