If you are like me and are not shy to leave your Christmas shopping a tad late, you are going to love this column - especially if you are shopping for people with just a remote interest in rugby. In Black and White - Jake White's book, written by Craig Ray, is an absolute must read.
It will make you laugh, it will probably make you cry, but best of all, it will entertain. It's an engrossing insight into not only the life of one of South Africa's most successful coaches of all time, but also the way rugby is run in this unique country in which the game is treated as a political currency. In fact - some of the tales actually need to be read to be believed!
The Luke Watson forced inclusion in the initial Rugby World Cup squad, and subsequent demand from the Watson family for Luke to be in the team that went to France, at risk of Jake losing his job should he not adhere to the demand, is probably the most earth-shattering tale, but that has been quite widely discussed in the media since news of the book launch filtered through. Hints of a third force, marshalled by political activists who played in the isolation Saru era, running South African rugby, are also fairly startling.
White obviously also uses the book to give his side of the story on him not being asked to extend his coaching contract, which he still believes was his right. He also voices his sadness and anger at the way the Bok coaching post was advertised during the World Cup meaning that Alistair Coetzee, the only one of his assistants to apply for the job, was scrambling to put a CV together while also trying to fulfill his World Cup commitments.
In fact, this is not really a book about rugby, so if you are looking for insights into the coaching brain of the man, this is not the book for you. And this is probably the only disappointment, really, but it does reinforce the fact that coaching the Springboks is almost not about what goes on inside the white lines, but how you manage the politics in the office. That is if you have an office - White's tale about coming back to the Saru offices in January of this year all chipper and looking forward to the world cup year, only to be told that he no longer had an office as Jonathan Stones had taken it, is also fairly chuckle-worthy.
Against the move
Another interesting tale is how Jake lost his job during Nick Mallett's reign. It was on the 1998 tour to the UK. Alan Solomons, then assistant to Mallett, and recently appointed Stormers head coach, was pushing hard for a place in the starting line-up for his blue-eyed boy, Bob Skinstad. Mallett was thus thinking of creating a space for Skinstad by either dropping Bok hard-man, Andre Venter, or moving him to lock, so he asked Jake for his opinion. White was very much against the move and said as such.
Solomons heard about this and promptly gave Mallett an ultimatum - it was either himself or Jake White. Mallett opted for Solomons and later dropped both Venter and skipper, Gary Teichmann, to totally destroy what the Boks had done in 1997 and 1998, and thus go on to suffer a torrid World Cup in 1999...
The most intriguing section of the book for me, though, are the pages detailing his toughest year at the helm - 2006. Many things contributed to "annis horribilis" as Oregan Hoskins put it at a post-match conference in front of the team and coach, and he came perilously close to losing his job.
But it all started on the field when he lost his star player, Schalk Burger, to a long-term neck injury. Now Jake is seemingly not one to admit to mistakes, and given his meticulous preparation for everything he does, one can understand his thought process.
Ironic and sad
But in that year he refused to replace a Burger with a player of similar ilk - an open side "fetcher" of a flank. And in the book he still refuses to accept that he made an error. Had the man selected Luke Watson (to my mind, then a deserved selection) or Wikus van Heerden (who went on to prove how valuable a player he is at the World Cup), or, in fact, any other like-minded flank, instead of trying to get Pierre Spies and Danie Rossouw to adapt to that position, he would have solved a multitude of his issues that year.
And it is rather fitting, if ironic and sad, that this man born with rugby in his veins, goes out on a bit of a low, losing against a fantastic BaaBaas side whose man of the match was open side Welsh flank, Martyn Williams, while playing a lock on the open side instead of a traditional fetcher...
Tank is a former WP tighthead prop and now Sport24 editor and the author of the blog, Front Row Grunt.
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