How White put the smile back on Springbok faces

New coach has had an instant impact - and restored pride to a nation desperate for success. Peter Bills reports
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The Independent Online

Test match morning in Bloemfontein, South Africa, is like no other anywhere in the world. From earliest light, when the first rays of the inevitable winter sun wink upon the dry, dusty Free State landscape, descendants of the old Boer farmers are on the move.

Test match morning in Bloemfontein, South Africa, is like no other anywhere in the world. From earliest light, when the first rays of the inevitable winter sun wink upon the dry, dusty Free State landscape, descendants of the old Boer farmers are on the move.

Jalopies, any kind of motor-ised farm vehicles, open pick-up trucks and the like are commandeered to transport the white, rugby-mad fans of this part of South Africa into the provincial capital for the build-up to the Test. This motley collection of beaten-up, mud-strewn, dented, dirty vehicles resembles an African version of the Beverley Hillbillies on the move.

They come armed with the accoutrements required for a major feast. Gas burners, bottles of methane gas, tubes, metal grills, bricks to build the barbecue, great packs of beers: these are the equivalent of a filled hip flask slipped into father's overcoat pocket as he sets off for Lansdowne Road and a Six Nations' Championship match on a cold February day.

For here, at altitude in the southernmost land of Africa, the braai, as it is known, is an intrinsic part of a major rugby occasion. The fires are lit by mid-morning, hours before the game; smoke drifts into the clear, blue sky, as though to announce the presence of Indians outside the city in some old western movie.

The smell of cooking boerewors, the renowned South African sausage, not to mention great chunks of local beef, seduces the nostrils. Twickenham for the Calcutta Cup match this most emphatically is not.

Bloemfontein has a modest- sized ground by international rugby standards, with a capa-city of around 44,000. But it was here, not in the more familiar rugby environs of Johannesburg, against Ireland on Saturday 12 June this year, that the long-awaited revival of Springbok rugby was finally given birth.

False dawns have been as plentiful as cobnuts in autumn in the world of South African international rugby. But what the new regime, led by the coach, Jake White, achieved in the southern-hemisphere winter this year was to transform the face of Springbok rugby, not just on the field but off it.

Dragging what many had regarded as the corpse of Springbok rugby - six long years without a Tri-Nations title - to the heady view from the summit of southern-hemisphere rugby, by putting New Zealand to the sword in Johannesburg, and then beating Australia in Durban, was one thing. To turn the Boks into winners only six months after his appointment as national coach marked down White as a motivator and achiever supreme.

But South Africa achieved something equally important during the course of that vibrant renaissance. Their off-field demeanour and approach, at best questionable in recent years to outsiders and at times downright hostile, was transformed into pleasantries and immaculate manners. White preached the mantra that South Africa's reputation had to be restored in all areas, and he has succeeded gloriously in doing so.

Manifestly, there were some bridges to repair. The sporting equivalent of a yob-mob that was unleashed upon England at Twickenham in November 2002, thuggery that featured late and dangerous tackles, foul play of all kinds and a snarling, overtly aggressive approach, did incalculable harm to the image of the game in the Republic. So, too, did tales of military-type training camps prior to the 2003 World Cup, from which emerged stories of players stripped naked, brutalised physically and tormented psychologically.

What, you wondered, were they trying to create? A rugby team or the sporting equivalent of one of Bin Laden's hit squads?

The position of Springbok coach carries a heavy burden in the world of South African sport. Of course, modern South Africa has changed, yet handling the manic expect-ations still requires a cool, calculating mind.

White enjoys the music of Phil Collins, Fleetwood Mac and Duran Duran, but at times a South African coach has required more the gentle tones of a Sibelius symphony as a soothing balm to his furrowed brow.

Somehow, by a judicious mixture of holding his own nerve, inculcating that quality to his players and selecting men of stature and intelligence, White has turned around South African rugby.

One of his shrewdest acts was to revive the international career of the 31-year-old loose-head prop-forward Os du Randt. White persuaded him to return when even the player had closed the door on his international playing days that began in 1994. Somehow, Du Randt survived a brutal fitness regime that saw his massive weight fall from 140kg to 122kg. He emerged this season as a key man in White's masterplan, a fulcrum of the pack.

Others have shone equally brightly. The young flanker Schalk Burger is fast becoming the most exciting back-row man in world rugby at only 21, while the recall of the overseas-based players Percy Montgomery and Jaco van der Westhuyzen has offered the Springbok side quality in key positions where they had hitherto struggled for poise and consistency. Side- stepping the much-criticised quota system has also helped the Springbok cause.

White's team will be confronted with the original schedule from hell: five Test matches on consecutive Saturdays, the first four against Wales, Ireland, England and Scotland, and the last against Argentina in Buenos Aires of all places. It is more than 40 years since a South African team won a grand slam on a full tour of Ireland and the British Isles. This squad, talented and promising as they certainly are, may find it desperately hard to achieve that at the end of a tough, relentless year of rugby.