Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Jake White

Interview with Jake White: World Cup winning Rugby Coach



Date : 11 November 2007

Producer : Victoria Cullinan

Presenter : Derek Watts

Researcher : Quereshini Naidoo

It was the match that millions gathered to watch, it was the match that every player in the Springbok squad had played their hearts out to be in, and it was the match that Coach Jake White had dreamed about for 17 years.

Jake White (Springbok Coach): “We wanted to play on the Tuesday. We were so ready to play. That whole week dragged and dragged and then the 78 minutes flew by. I realised that is it. They can’t score twice. They had to score nine points and I realised that physically they couldn’t run the length of the field and back again in two minutes. I realised that we had won the World Cup. The amazing thing was that in those two minutes I thanked the coaches, I thanked the reserves, thanked the non-paying reserves, thanked the security guards, I had time to walk down the stands and get to the field. It was almost like that went in slow motion.”

Jake and the team came back with the most coveted trophy in rugby.

Euphoric South Africans hailed the sporting heroes. Eleven days later while everyone in country was still basking in the glory, Jake held a press conference to tell the world that he was quitting.

[Press Conference] Jake: “I walk away with no regrets but with plenty of sadness.”

A visibly upset Jake told the world that he had not been given the option of renewing his contract as Bok coach.

[Press Conference] Jake: “I’m not surprised because there is no history of loyalty and trust in South African Rugby.”

South African Rugby accused him of playing the victim, claiming he had missed the deadline. His job was advertised while Jake was at the World Cup. The deadline was the 19 October – the day before the Final.

Jake: “One of the things that I always realised in this job is that you are going to get fired, that’s inevitable.”

Jake has had a roller coaster ride as the Springbok Coach and now he has written a book about his rocky relationship with the SA Rugby Union.

Jake: “When I heard BA 643 to London and then to Paris, and I got on that plane and I was on my way to the World Cup, it was probably the first time I realised that I had survived. I never knew what to expect, Derek.”

He has faced accusations of racism, been threatened with dismissal a number of times, his coaching decisions questioned and he even faced attempted blackmail. It all started at the end of 2003 when Rudolph Straeuli was fired.

Derek Watts (Carte Blanche presenter): “The call asking Jake to apply for one of the most demanding and controversial coaching jobs in the world came out of the blue and strangely enough while he was at the Canberra home of a South African star who headed down under, Clyde Rathbone.”

Jake: “And it was quite ironic because I was literally on my way there to see what other opportunities there were abroad. I finished two years with the under-21s. I got the feeling that I probably wasn’t going to go any higher. So I was looking at going to get some knowledge in Australia and then maybe going to go coach in Europe.”

He had a tough task. The once mighty team was ranked sixth in the world. They had suffered a long string of defeats, been subjected to the humiliations of Kamp Staaldraad and had collapsed in the quarterfinals of 2003 World Cup. Jake had to reintroduce a culture of winning into the demoralised team.

Derek: “Jake, you couldn’t have asked for a better start, I mean, winning the Tri-Nations in 2004.”

Jake: “There’s no doubt winning the Tri-Nations and getting South Africa behind you again because we had come off the disaster of the 2003 campaign.”

Then they made a clean sweep at the International Rugby Awards, winning coach, player and team of the year. Jake was rewarded with an extension of his contract up until the 2007 World Cup. But the honeymoon was soon over. Jake had constant rows over attempts to meddle in his team selections. In June 2005, during the French Tour of South Africa he was ordered to substitute Schalk Burger with Solly Tyibilika. He refused.

Jake: “There was a bit of sentiment that Solly should play because he comes form that area. I said, ‘You can’t be making emotional decisions like that. We play for the South African public ... you can’t leave out the player that has been voted the world’s best rugby player because you are playing in PE.’”

Derek: “So there was a crisis meeting with Bryan van Rooyen?”Jake: “I didn’t go to that meeting. But I was told that on Sunday I was going to get fired. We played on Saturday, in fact, some of the guys got text messages from journos saying win or lose he’s gone.”

The Boks won the match and Jake stayed. The confrontations and threats would set the tone for the next two years.

Derek: “2006, you call the year from hell?”

Jake: “That was close to it Derek, let me tell you. We lost seven test matches. We lost disastrously in Brisbane. I had never experienced that Derek. Even as a school teacher I had never lost a game by 49 points to nil.”

Derek: “You were booed?”

Jake: “That was probably the least that happened to me, being booed.”

It was the worst ever defeat for the Boks against Australia. Jakes relationship the board had deteriorated so badly that he was being publicly criticised.

Jake: “I remember reading an article saying that the coach is in a 49 metre hole and it was written by a South African Rugby employee.”

It was in November that things hit rock bottom. After losing seven tests in a row, The Blue Bulls Rugby Union declared a vote of no confidence in Jake. In middle of the tour Jake had to fly back from England to defend himself. He was made to wait for five hours like a naughty schoolboy outside the headmaster’s office before he faced a grilling from the presidents’ council.

Jake: “I literally flew all the way back for a 45 minute meeting. I will never forget the one president said that he goes to a lot of bars and restaurants and he just knows that the people he speaks to there don’t think John is a good captain ... what do I think? I thought it was incredible that I got asked that question.”

Derek: “Jake it is funny now but at the time you must have thought that this could be the end of the road?”

Jake: “I always knew that they wanted to. But I never thought they would fire. I was always fortunate to have the players’ backing and to have the sponsors’ backing. Those were the two groups of people I had to keep happy because those are the two groups that know if you are doing your job or not.”

Derek: “And your management team?”

Jake: “There is no doubt about that. I never had to look over my shoulder to see if there were people trying to take my job or sabotage something within us.”

Derek: “What do you say to critics who say that you made all the right noises about transformation but that you didn’t deliver?”

Jake: “Well, I would say that they are living in a dream world, Derek. I picked a player of colour for every position in my four years, except flyhalf. The reality is that I have done more than any other coach has ever done in terms of being representative at test level.”

Jake was ordered to use more black players but he never had a strong pool to draw on.

Jake: “It’s very difficult at national level to make it more representative if you are not going to get people in the provinces playing there.”

Jake suspected that President Mbeki’s name was often used to pressurise him into making certain decisions.

Jake: “The reality is if our government wanted to instil quota systems, and if they wanted to make sure there was x-amount of players, it would be law. People who say that the government interferes or this person interferes, you know it is nonsense. The reality is that there are certain people that are involved in the decision making in rugby and they use the powers that they have to put pressure. They continually say that the government says or they say but nobody knows who ‘they’ are.”

He got so fed up that he made an appointment to have tea with the President to discuss his problems. But Oregan Hoskins accused him of bringing the game into disrepute. Jake was forced to cancel.

Derek: “With all the niggles and the full blown confrontations of the selection of black players, it was ironic that one of the biggest dust ups, of his four year coaching career, was over a white boy.”

In May, team manager Zola Yeye and President Oregan Hoskins announced the 46 man World Cup training squad. The only problem was that Jake had selected only 45 players. Luke Watson had been added in just before the announcement.

Derek: “How did you feel?”

Jake: “I was flipping disgusted. I was livid to be honest with you. I thought it is unbelievable how this happens in this country you know.”

Derek: “What is the history between you and Luke?”

Jake: “It’s quite simple. I don’t think he is a good rugby player. I think he is the most overrated rugby player I have seen at this level and that’s it, full-stop.”

Derek: “Jake, who were the officials putting you under this pressure?”

Jake: “Pumelela Tshume, who is the chairman of the board. Oregan Hoskins, who is the president. Mike Stofile, who is the vice president. I think there is no doubt about it looking back there was an agenda on their side because of the connections they had with his father. They felt that they had to push him to get him into a team.”

Luke’s father, Cheeky Watson, was an anti-apartheid activist in the 70s who refused to play rugby for whites’ only teams. He joined a black team and played with Zola Yeye. Today Cheeky is a business consultant with friends in high places.

Derek: “And your own team manager Zola Yeye attacked you and the two other selectors.”

Jake: “Ja, I mean he did. Zola knows the family very well. I think there is a story that he actually held the little guy when he was born. So there is a deep rooted connection there as well.”

This intervention was tame in comparison to an offer Jake apparently received a couple of months earlier from the Watson family themselves. He got called to a meeting with their lawyer.

Derek: “There were all sorts of conditions laid down. Luke will be selected for the squad. He will play in a test. He will go to the World Cup. And the bonus for you was that you would keep your job after 2007?”

Jake: “The bonus wasn’t that I would keep my job because there were no guarantees about that. The bonus was that I would go the World Cup. The bottom line was that if this doesn’t happen you might not go to the World Cup yourself. So it was a hell of a thing to hear. I thought, Where is this coming from now?’ Then as I walked away I thought, ‘What way do I go now, is it worth throwing away three-and-a-half years of work literally before a World Cup?’”

The lawyer also allegedly warned Jake that he was being watched, his phones tapped and that he was going to be linked to a ‘third force’ that supposedly ran SA Rugby.

Derek: “The biggest surprise for me was that you were prepared to accept it.”

Jake: “That was the tough thing. I went with my lawyer and afterwards at lunch I sat with him and I said, ‘Listen, what do we do now because this is big hey?’”But the next day they withdrew the deal. Two months later Luke’s name was added to the list. He made his debut in a test against Samoa in Bloemfontein. Fifty minutes into the match Luke was injured and had to leave the field. The matter of Luke Watson was never brought up again.

Derek: “How did the players treat him?”

Jake: “There’s one thing you can’t do and that is bullshit a rugby player. They know if they rate a guy or not. They also found it awkward because they knew under what circumstances he had come into the team. I remember Derek some of the senior players came into my room during the week and said they have got a problem because they are not going to initiate him. I said, ‘What do you mean?’ and they just said they don’t think he is worthy of getting initiated because he wasn’t picked and he got forced in and all that sort of thing.”

Derek: “What is the Springbok initiation?”

Jake: “It is not something we talk about obviously. It is an induction into the Springbok family.”

Derek: “You can’t tell us what they do?”

Jake: “No, I can’t tell you what they do. It is something that is unique to South Africa. It is basically a passing down of traditions from Doc Craven and his dog.”

Derek: “You don’t get smacked on the butt?”

Jake: “There is a little bit of that but it is nothing like playing a test match, so it’s okay.”

For once Jake’s selection of the World Cup squad in July was accepted without a murmur.

Jake: “I got the feeling that they sort of said, ‘Let him go to the World Cup and when he gets back it is finished. We are going to move. We don’t really need to be fighting with this guy too much more. We don’t really get on with him all that much. He doesn’t get on with us. So let him go to the World Cup and if he loses in the quarter-finals or the semi-finals then we are all happy. Then we move.’ They didn’t think that maybe South Africa could win the World Cup. I think that is what has happened ... we came back winners. But I did say that I don’t have energy to continue on fighting with you guys for another four years.”

Rumours are flying about what Jakes next career move will be. Australia, England, Wales have all been mentioned.

Derek: “So where to now for Jake White?”

Jake: “I don’t want to go. I really would like to add to the brand over the next few years. There are some great times ahead for these players if they stick together. For the next coach I say stick to the same principle I did in my four years. You are going to get fired. If you get fired make sure you do because of the way you want to do and not the way everybody else wants you to do it. What happens is if you listen to all the other voices and it goes wrong they fire you anyway. So you might as well go to bed at night knowing you are going to get fired but it was because of what you wanted to do.”

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