White knight plots his next move
Twenty years ago, there was a battle for supremacy in Springbok rugby. New Bok coach Ian McIntosh had to make a decision about who would take over as captain of the national side following the retirement of Naas Botha. There were two candidates: Francois Pienaar of Transvaal and Tiaan Strauss of Western Province. Mac chose Pienaar and the rest is history.
Strauss was not immediately dispensed with as a player, but when Mac gave way to Kitch Christie in late 1994, the writing was on the wall. Strauss was the best number eight in the country, but Christie felt he would undermine Pienaar's authority and so the Lion of the Kalahari was omitted from South Africa's World Cup squad the following year.
But that was not the end of the story. In Australia, the rugby league scouts had their eyes on Strauss and, in 1996, he left these shores to play two seasons for the Cronulla Sharks. In 1998 he joined the Waratahs and in the days when you could still represent more than one country, inevitably became a Wallaby. And so Strauss' dream of playing at a World Cup came to pass and, after missing out on a winner's medal for South Africa, he got the gong playing for Australia at the 1999 tournament.
There is, therefore, a sense of déjà vu about what is happening in the life of Jake White at the moment.
After White's Brumbies put together the best half of rugby seen in the tournament this season against the Sharks on Saturday, the question on everybody's lips was not if, but when. Could White become the first man to coach two different nations to World Cup victory? Speaking to the Canberra Times, White said: "Anyone who talks to me knows I want to coach international rugby again. Australian rugby has been good to me and, of course, I have a goal to get back to international rugby. But I'm focusing on the Brumbies. I've got a four-year deal and … they're my number one priority."
That may change in July, when the British and Irish Lions tour to Australia comes to an end. Wallaby coach Robbie Deans has led a charmed existence since taking the job in 2008, with a win/loss ratio that would have sent most of his predecessors packing long ago. But if the Lions win the Test series down under, it will probably be the end of the line for Deans.
White's only serious rival for the top job is the Reds' director of coaching, Ewen McKenzie, who announced this week that he would be leaving the franchise at the end of the season to pursue his dream of coaching at international level. It may be that he has been persuaded into the role of stalking horse by some influential people who want Deans out before his contract expires at the end of the year.
McKenzie said this week: "I'd love to be able to coach at a higher level, but loving and getting opportunities are two different things. It really depends on what opportunities there are. There may be none."
Wise words, for the Reds have looked a pale shadow of the side that won the title in 2011, in stark contrast to White's Brumbies who, even at this early stage, look odds on to win the Australian conference. And just as McKenzie reclaimed the glory years during his tenure in Brisbane, White is determined to move forward while looking back in Canberra.
The Brumbies were the first "new" franchise when Super Rugby entered the professional era in 1996. They played an exciting, multiphase game, with the great George Gregan directing operations at the base of the scrum. One of White's first meetings when he took the reins 18 months ago was with Gregan, who happily agreed to join his old halfback partner Stephen Larkham on the coaching staff.
White said: "This year we've been trying to bring back some of the old attitudes and ways of thinking that made the Brumbies such a success in the early days. There's nothing better than listening to stories about how things worked and what was successful in the glory days."
Then there is the tale of two men called Smith. White recognised the need to improve the Brumbies' defence after the frustration of missing out on the play-offs last year. To that end, he approached veteran Australian Rugby League coach Brian Smith to add his expertise to the mix.
Then he made the inspired decision to tempt Wallaby great George Smith back from Japan. Initially, the thought was that Smith would add experience on the bench, but the season-ending injury to David Pocock has thrust the 32-year-old flank back into the limelight. He revelled in the fetcher role against the Sharks and there are already calls for him to go straight back into the Wallaby team to face the Lions.
White's coaching success has always been predicated on his ability to spot talent and trust it, even in the bad times. It was he, apparently, who persuaded Clyde Rathbone to come out of retirement to play for the Brumbies. Rathbone captained South Africa to the Under-21 World Championship under White in 2002.
Players trust White, it seems. If only some of South Africa's rugby administrators could say the same.