Jake White: “It’s great to compete in the real world”

There’s something very intellectual about Jake White. As he chats away on the phone from Canberra, I imagine him looking honestly at me from behind his new ebony-framed spectacles, and sincerely responding to my probing examination.

For all intents and purposes, Jake is not a man of few words, which just about defies his academic demeanour. If talking rugby were an Olympic sport, Jake would be the only entrant, as the others would cry off in shame. The current Brumbies mentor’s transition from the hustle-bustle of South Africa to the tranquil valley surroundings of Canberra has been fairly seamless, helped in no small part by having previously resided in Stellenbosch.

“The people in the community have been really friendly, probably due to the fact that the team is doing so well,” says Jake. And his commitment to the Brumbies is nailed to just about every mast in the Australian capital: “My wife is here, but my two boys are still in Cape Town at school and university. I have tried to show the players that I am committed to get the job done by not commuting back and forth. I’ve only been home once, for the tour.”

South Africans jumping ship to Australia is not a new thing, but Jake bats down the perception that given the apparent similarities of the two countries, moving eastward is uncomplicated. “I’m loving being out of my comfort zone. Aussies actually don’t do things the way we do things in SA. That’s not to say what we do in SA is right!”

Upon his arrival last July, he discovered an almost unrecognisable Brumbies outfit. The once-famed modern rugby trendsetters were hovering in the depths of Super Rugby classification. “They had lost that edge, but their saving grace was the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) on their doorstep.”

He instantly set about his work, getting former Brumbies household names George Gregan and Eddie Jones on board as consultants, and rekindling the AIS relationship. It unquestionably has the aroma of former Brumbies’ glory days.

He consciously also made the decision not to bring any South Africans over – staff or players. “I did not want to bombard. I first wanted to see how the organisation worked, what was at their disposal and then decide how to add value.”

He appointed Waratahs defector Ben Mowen as skipper because he was convinced he was the right guy – a la John Smit – to complement his coaching ideology. “I’ve never seen a successful coach who has a poor captain. I decided early so that we all got behind him, and also to break up the cliques that can form.”

Against all odds, the turnaround was almost immediate. “I really enjoy being allowed to do what I want; pick, recruit and substitute who I want. It’s just great to compete in the real world.”

We both snigger, but it papers over the cracks of a South African system racked with obtuseness. I breathe a sigh of relief; I’ve hit a soft spot. The frost of those words begins to set in.

As for South Africans crossing the pond, Jake isn’t completely shutting the gate. “You’re allowed two foreign-based players in Australian franchises, and they become eligible for Australia after three years if they choose. But it’s a professional sport so if a guy up-skills himself then returns home, great. André Vos did that and became Bok captain. The converse is that you get guys like Dan Vickerman and Clyde Rathbone who became Wallabies.”

Now for the acid test. Would he coach the Wallabies? After all, his good mate Mickey Arthur got another crack at coaching cricket internationally and is doing superbly with Australia. “I’ve made no secrets of the fact that after this job I’d love to coach international rugby again, wherever the opportunity is, and test myself at the best level.”

I also give him the opportunity to explain the Lions debacle in which he was embroiled. He is candid in his response. “The reality was I offered my services as a consultant to look at the organisation from a rugby point of view and was paid a consultancy fee.” I sense his irritation at being asked.

“Which part should I claim — the Currie Cup win or their current Super Rugby failings? A lot of things did change when I left, but it’s not necessarily because of me. I truly believe [Lions CEO] Kevin de Klerk was thankful.”

Our time is limited, so I give him one for the road. “How many Brumbies would make the Springbok team?”

His reply is more delightful than I could ever have envisaged. “Now I’ve realised what the answer is, none of them, because they’re all eligible to play for Australia.” Bingo.

This article originally appeared on Sport24 in 2012.


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