Twickenham's battle of the fallen giants: Dark days for White as Blue Bulls put the boot in

The only man in world rugby under more pressure than Andy Robinson is Springbok coach Jake White. The two men now face each other in a two-Test series
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The Independent Online

If Jake White, the Springboks coach, was hoping that the autumn internationals offered a chance to escape the pressure-cooker atmosphere back in South Africa, the news from home yesterday was not encouraging.

The country's largest union, the Blue Bulls, which has 10 players in the current touring party, discussed the plight of the national side on Tuesday night and unanimously passed a motion which was passed on to the country's governing body.

It read: "The BBRU wants to express its shock and unhappiness with the performance of our national rugby team, the Springboks. The union places the blame squarely on the shoulders of the coach, Mr Jake White, and his management team. In the interest of SA rugby these gentlemen are requested to resign with immediate effect.

"The union no longer sees its way clear to support these officials with the coaching and selection of teams and are convinced that if they do not resign with immediate effect, then there is no prospect of competing with reasonable success at the World Cup in 2007."

No wonder seasoned observers say that White is a changed man these days. Only last year the former schoolteacher was voted the most media-friendly person in South African sport, but if the poll were held now he would probably have trouble holding on to his deposit.

Large sections of the media and the South African public have turned against White, blaming him for the rapid slide in fortunes which in the space of less than six months has seen potential challengers to New Zealand's global supremacy become international also-rans. Naturally outgoing and communicative, White has become defensive and introspective.

Saturday's pale defeat to Ireland in Dublin renewed the criticisms of White and the next 10 days may decide his future. At a time when most of the other Test-playing countries are on an upward curve, White is well aware that the international game's two most criticised coaches will be in opposition at Twickenham for the next two weekends.

Andy Robinson's England are on a run of seven successive defeats, while the Springboks have lost five matches in a row on their travels. If the pressure on White was eased earlier this year when a win over the All Blacks ended a sequence of five consecutive losses, the defeat at Lansdowne Road has again prompted demands for his removal.

While the English newspapers made grim reading for Robinson on Monday, some of the criticism of White in the South African press was even more damning. The Cape Argus published a large selection of readers' messages, almost all of them calling for White's head, while a columnist wrote succinctly: "There are only three things wrong with Springbok rugby: Jake White, Alister Coetzee [the backs coach] and Gert Smal [the forwards coach]."

"The one thing I've always said since I got this job is there is always one definite: coaches do get fired," White said defiantly during a break at the Springboks' training camp in Bath yesterday. "Bob Dwyer won the World Cup, he's been fired. Eddie Jones was in the final, he's been fired. Graham Henry is one of the top coaches in the world and he's been fired. It's the nature of what happens in the jobs we get into."

How times have changed, for until six months ago White was seen as the man who had restored Springbok respectability. Under his predecessor, Rudi Straeuli, South Africa had finished bottom of the 2003 Tri Nations and endured a miserable World Cup, going out in the quarter-finals. Moreover, a scandal over brutal training methods and allegations of racism within the squad had given the impression of a nation failing to come to terms with the modern age.

The initial improvement under the new coach, who had taken the Baby Boks to the World Under-21 Championship in 2002, was swift. South Africa won the Tri-Nations in 2004, when White was named the International Rugby Board's coach of the year. They were runners-up 12 months later and were the only team to beat New Zealand that year. The All Blacks subsequently won 15 matches in a row, their run ending only at the hands of the same opponents this summer.

White took the Springboks on a record-equalling run of 13 unbeaten home matches, but the rot quickly set in when that sequence was ended by France in June. Four more defeats followed, including a humiliating 49-0 loss in Australia, and subsequent home Tri-Nations victories over the All Blacks and Wallabies failed to make up the ground that had been lost.

South African cynics joke that all Springbok coaches eventually succumb to "mad coach disease". They cite Straeuli's pre-World Cup boot camp and the instructions of his predecessor, Harry Viljoen, never to kick the ball in a match against Argentina.

The charge against White is more fundamental: that he picks the wrong players and even when he does get the names right he puts them in the wrong positions. Thus the flying wing Bryan Habana was selected at outside centre against Ireland and Francois Steyn, normally an outside half, played on the wing. Steyn, one of the few successes in Dublin, has been moved for the England match - to full-back.

While South African rugby has traditionally relied on power and aggression rather than finesse and creativity, White's teams have become increasingly negative and sterile. If the selection of the rugged Butch James at outside-half suggests that the coach is planning to make life hard for Charlie Hodgson on Saturday, his choice of a physically awesome back row underlines his belief that size matters in international rugby.

Luke Watson, a foraging flanker in the Neil Back mould, was South Africa's player of the year but has been consistently ignored by White, who refuses to acknowledge a role for "fetchers", those who can win the ball and feed their more creative colleagues. "A fetcher is my son when I need a beer," White said when asked about the value of such players earlier this year.

While White retains crucial - if minority - support at the very top of the South African Rugby Union, it could be the governing body's precarious finances that are keeping him in the job. The union is bracing itself for an estimated bill of 20m rand (about £1.46m) when a High Court verdict is announced next week over a challenge to the selection of the South African teams to play Super 14s rugby next year. It is believed that would leave barely 5m rand in the coffers, most of which would be lost if the union had to pay off White, who is contracted until next year's World Cup, and his assistants.

Like Robinson, White looks with envy at countries like New Zealand and Ireland, where the welfare of the national team is paramount and the club game is structured accordingly. He believes his best men play too much rugby, which is why a host of big-name players, including Os du Randt, Schalk Burger, Bakkies Botha, Victor Matfield, Fourie du Preez and Joe van Niekerk, are currently in South Africa recovering from injuries or fatigue.

For all their problems, however, the Springboks have beaten all the major Test-playing countries under White - with one notable exception. It is more than six years since South Africa have beaten England and nine since they won at Twickenham.

"England have got a very proud record at Twickenham albeit they've lost seven in a row," White said. "I don't think you can ever arrive at Twickenham and expect to be handed a Test match. They lost to an intercept try last Saturday against Argentina and had a try disallowed in the first five minutes against New Zealand, so things aren't going for them. We've been there before. We know how quickly things can turn."

White, who was a strong candidate for the RFU post as elite director of rugby until Rob Andrew took the job, sympathises with Robinson. "One's got to feel for a guy who is involved in a situation like that," he said. "I'm sure it's not his calling that the team is not performing. He has a family, he's got friends and people who look up to him. I think it must be difficult for any human to endure what he's enduring." And White should know.

White heat: Coach faces firestorm from Springboks' critics

'I must tell you I feel for the guy, because it must be really tough, especially the fact that they are world champions. We've been there. In the middle of the year we lost five in a row and it's a lonely, lonely feeling.'

Jake White on his England counterpart, Andy Robinson

'We are tired of excuses. No one forced the Bok management to leave the best players at home.'

Naas Botha, former Springboks captain, after last weekend's defeat against Ireland

'The team is a national asset, and I cannot recall so many angry calls and letters - there are a lot of unhappy people.'

SARFU official, speaking in July after the 49-0 defeat by Australia

'It is a scandal. To lose like that was pathetic. The players don't pick themselves, so blame the coach. If I was Jake White I'd resign.'

Frik du Preez, former Springbok lock

'That was the worst-ever performance by a Springbok team. It was shocking. The faster White resigns the better.'

Divan Serfontein, former South Africa scrum-half

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