Coach who coped with the pressure: Critics red-faced as White eyes his day of redemption

Less than a year ago the South Africa coach was given a vote of no confidence by his Board. Now he is two steps from World Cup glory. Hugh Godwin reports from Paris
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The Independent Online

Even by the standards of this unpredictable World Cup the position of Jake White as head coach of South Africa is extra-ordinary. White stands two wins away from lifting the Webb Ellis trophy and joining the late Kitch Christie, who won it with Francois Pienaar as his captain in 1995, in the pantheon of South African sport. Eleven months ago the same White was summoned home from England – halfway through a Springbok tour, mark you – to explain his record in the face of a vote of no confidence. He staved it off, and here he is now, with a Stade de France semi-final against Argentina to look forward to. His critics have been struck dumb.

White made that 20,000-mile midweek round journey last November at the behest of the good folk of the Blue Bulls Union, sitting in judgement in Pretoria. They are the most powerful of the 14 provinces on the South African Rugby Union and they passed a motion which said of White and his management team "if they do not resign with immediate effect then there is no prospect of competing with reasonable success at the World Cup in 2007".

It was true that White had endured a wildly fluctuating 2006 which included a 49-0 defeat to Australia and, early in that end-of-season tour when the carpers seemed unwilling to acknowledge the absence of more than a dozen top players, the Springboks lost lamely to Ireland. But White also won the Tri-Nations at his first attempt in 2004 and in that year and 2006 his Boks were the only team to defeat New Zealand.

White argued his case, kept his place, and the Blue Bulls have since gone missing from the critical china shop. The SARU's ruling Presidents' Council agreed a moratorium on attacks against White. There is thought to be a tacit agreement that when the Boks' job next becomes available, Heyneke Meyer, the Bulls coach, will be the prime candidate. An unexpected fillip to everyone's mood came when the Bulls-based franchise won the Super 14 after years of hopeless performances by South Africa's teams.

Not that White, whose £200,000 a year contract is up in December, wants to cease being the Boks' coach. Far from it, he is thought to be averse either to a move upstairs as a director of rugby, or downstairs to a provincial job as, for instance, Nick Mallett did when he joined Western Province. If it comes to pass that White and the Boks part company – and it would be a near-certainty still if South Africa lose to Argentina and White knows it – he has let it be known the rarefied category of job he is after.

Whether in off-the-record conversations, or through judicious prompting by his agent, the word is out that White would fancy coaching England or Australia or possibly the British & Irish Lions in 2009. The Lions, of course, are to tour South Africa and what better person than a recent ex-Bok coach to guide them on safari? It is all part of the game for White. When Leicester were in the market for a non-English head coach – they plumped for Argentina's Marcelo Loffreda – White appeared to be in the frame for that one too.

It was Mallett who gave the ambitious White – who first took up coaching while he was a teacher at a boys' public school, Jeppe High in Johannesburg – a significant leg-up as a technical analyst during the Boks' world record-equalling run of 17 consecutive Test wins in 1997-98. White was an assistant to Mallett's successor, Harry Viljoen, in 2001, and coached South Africa's Under-21s to the world championship in 2002. When the Springbok job fell vacant after Rudi Straeuli's doomed reign in February 2004, White emerged from a shortlist of eight candidates. Unusually, he had never been a head coach at a province.

Straeuli left under a cloud after revelations of the notorious Kamp Staaldraad, when players were forced to do military-style exercises naked. White was outside that regime. But it is his and every South African's lot to tread the country's political minefield. Quota is a dirty word now – administrators talk instead of "targets" – and the next Springbok coach may be obliged to pick at least one ethnic black South African. At this World Cup only the wing Akona Ndungane qualifies, and he has made one appearance so far.

Twelve years on from Pienaar's final, when Nelson Mandela donned the captain's No 6 jersey, anecdotal evidence says rugby remains the white man's sport. If, and only if, the Boks get to the final the townships and rural areas will tune in to watch.

White's defence is that he can only work with what the provinces supply him. His team selection has to be signed off by the chairman, president, deputy president and vice-president of SA Rugby. In May he was accused in the media of picking the national team to his own rules. "As the national coach I have a duty to be sensitive to the transformation process of our country," White said. "My record on and commitment to the sensitive nature of transformation within the Springbok team speaks for itself. Since my appointment as national coach in early 2004, I have chosen 21 players of colour for the Springboks – a total of 13 coloured players and eight ethnic blacks. I am a proud South African who is very proud of our many cultures and diversity."

By any sporting measure, White has done more right than wrong. He has nurtured and promoted Bryan Habana on the wing and scrum-half Fourie du Preez, described by his great predecessor Joost van der Westhuizen as "the best No 9 in the world". On that November 2006 tour the under-strength Boks shared a two-Test series with England at Twickenham. Critics wailed that the talented young Francois Steyn was not in his correct position. The lad, though, could drop goals from anywhere, as Andy Robinson's team found to their cost. The 25-14 win at Twickenham in the second Test was a fine result for White.

England reciprocated in June by sending a third-string squad to South Africa, they were beaten 58-10 and 55-22. Fast forward to this World Cup and they were humiliated 36-0 by White's Boks at Stade de France.

Quite a transformation from 2002 and 2003 when Martin Johnson's team smashed the Boks 53-3 at Twickenham and beat them decisively in Perth in a World Cup pool match.

Last weekend in the quarter-final against Fiji there was a neon-edged sign of good coaching when the Boks drove a rolling maul over for a try in each half.

But perhaps the best gauge of White's buoyant mood was after the pool match against Tonga in Lens. He put his frontline players on the bench and risked trouble as the Tongans pushed hard before losing 30-25. White appeared afterwards in his gold-edged green jacket, smiling and relaxed, with his "dirt-trackers" captain, the utterly engaging Bob Skinstad, beside him.

"We always knew the third pool match would be the tough one," White said. "We had to test some other players to see if they were ready for a World Cup, with possibly three more games to come in the knockout rounds. The important thing to understand is we passed the test."

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