'It's time for new heroes'

‘I’ve believed for a long time now that South Africa are going to win the World Cup,” Jake White says with quiet but utter certainty in his hotel room in Paris. Days away from the final, against an England team that White’s Springboks beat 36-0 last month, it might be presumed that arrogance or complacency underpins the South African coach’s unusually bold honesty. But the urgency in White’s voice is more revealing.

“There is a sense of destiny about this team,” White insists, “because no other side in world rugby plays with the same pressure.
England have been through a tough time, but it’s nothing like our situation. I know Schalk Burger has talked to you about the fact that, after this tournament, massive political pressure is going to be exerted to pick a Springbok side based more on colour rather than merit. This is a huge unspoken motivation for them—to show that they deserve to keep their team.”

White, the 43-year-old former schoolteacher who has done more than any other Springbok coach to develop young black and coloured players, believes the final will almost certainly be his last game in charge.

Even victory, he suggests, “will not buy me any more time. But what it will do is buy South African rugby some time to work out if it is smart enough to hang on to this group of players and move on together for the sake of the game in the entire country. This is an immensely bright group of guys and they know the stakes.

They’re playing to win the World Cup, but they’re also playing for the future.”

After this astonishing tournament, White acknowledges that England are entitled to believe in destiny themselves. Any side capable of hauling themselves out of the graveyard of that shattering group-game defeat should feel that history is calling.

And when that team are the defending world champions, with a defiant pack and the boot of Jonny Wilkinson behind them, White is right to urge caution.

White, from a rugby culture where scrummaging is often considered romantic and props are regarded as heroic, talks up his own forward power. “England are exceptionally strong in the scrum but in the lineout, with [Victor] Matfield and [Bakkies] Botha, and at the breakdown, with Burger, they will feel pressure. But we’re keeping our feet on the ground because there have been so many amazing twists and turns in this World Cup.”

White, however, derides any amateur psychologist who claims that the momentum has now swung to England because a bloated South Africa will still be gorging on the memory of their 36-0 win. The Springboks, after all, were “nilled” in similarly embarrassing fashion when losing 49-0 to Australia last year. “We’ve been through our own downward spiral, but just as there were mitigating factors in England losing so badly to us, that result in Brisbane came out of left field. The week before, South African Rugby announced that they weren’t going to lengthen my contract and there had also been this hoo-ha about me becoming director of rugby for England. The players were unsettled.

“But we played Australia in Sydney two weeks later—once I’d reassured them that I was staying. We only lost 20-18 after a Wallaby try in the last minute. That shows how things can turn around in two weeks. England have had four weeks since we played each other.”

When asked how close he came to moving to Twickenham last year, White admits: “I was in the frame but there was no real prospect then of me leaving South Africa. I was committed to my team.”

As for the future: “If my contract doesn’t get renewed and England come to me with a proposal to coach them I’d be crazy not to accept it. There are a huge amount of similarities between England and South Africa. We have both come through tough times and, apart from these last few weeks, they’ve really not done well since winning the World Cup. But England have got massive potential, some real stars and plenty of exciting young players coming through. And there is so much desire and passion in English rugby that I’d have to be tempted. Who wouldn’t want to be part of that rugby culture?”

Three weeks ago, when Brian Ashton’s grip on the England coaching job was less secure, White told me: “Without committing myself to anyone I definitely want to stay in international rugby. I want to see what it’s like to coach on a relatively even keel, without South Africa’s political interference, and England would be hugely attractive to any coach at this level. I would hate to leave my own country and I would especially hate to leave this team because I think in four years’ time, if we keep them together, they could take rugby to a new level. But just as a South African lawyer can find himself a great job in London, it’s legitimate as a professional coach that I look at other opportunities.

“Once you’ve been at this level it’s in your blood and you want to see how good you really are. On Sunday night, as South Africa and Argentina ran out for the semifinal, with the music blaring and the crowd going beserk, Eddie Jones [the former Australia coach and now White’s assistant] turned to me and said, ‘This is what it’s all about. This is why we coach international rugby.’ But after Saturday I’ll have time to reflect and make a final decision.”

There is a tangible poignance in White working for probably the last time this week with players he has coached over many years. As assistant coach of the side that won the Under-19 World Cup in 1999—and as chief coach of the tournament-winning team in the Under-21 equivalent in 2002—White created a nucleus of players who have enjoyed sustained international success.

“We’ve been together four years as a senior squad but I’ve worked with many of them far longer. I first came across John Smit when he was 15 and I coached Victor Matfield when I was in charge of SA Schools in 1994. In 1999, when we won the Under-19 World Cup, John was the captain and in 2002 we were joined by Schalk Burger, Fourie du Preez, Juan Smith and the rest. I know them inside-out and all I have to do these next few days is get the team right in terms of preparation and focus.

“That’s why I feel so fortunate. The critics have been unanimous in their belief that Bryan Habana is the best finisher in world rugby. They all say Fourie du Preez is the world’s best scrumhalf. Our two locks, Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha, are as good as anyone. The same goes for our flankers in Burger and Smith.”

The list of England players who could claim comparable status is not as long. But White knows that World Cups are won by teams. “England are a proper team now, but so are we. I also feel we’re destined. Before the tournament Thabo Mbeki told us, ‘Forget the politics and win it’—and that was a big statement. And when we got to France we were in the same hotel as Madiba and we gave him the captain’s number two jersey. He said, ‘Win it for the whole country,’ and we remembered how he gave us that massive lift when we won in 1995. That’s why I brought in Morné du Plessis to hand out the team jerseys before the first game of this World Cup.

“Morné had been team manager in 1995 and the message he gave was quite clear. People in South Africa are tired of the old images, of watching the plane fly over Ellis Park after we had beaten the All Blacks. They’re tired of the photos of Francois Pienaar holding the World Cup. It’s time for some new stories. It’s time for new heroes.” — Â

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