White feels heat as he turns to young Boks

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The Independent Online

His critics assert that he has made too many mistakes. They claim he has picked the wrong players, left obvious talents on the sidelines and employed doubtful tactics. Midway through this year's Tri-Nations season in the southern hemisphere, they called for the head of the Springbok coach, Jake White.

Indisputably, White made one terrible blunder in his first year as South Africa's rugby coach. He steered his players to the 2004 Tri-Nations title. There was no way from there except down. And White has duly trodden that lonely, less appealing road.

White and his Springboks arrive in Ireland this afternoon to prepare for next Saturday's Test in Dublin and then two against England. Back in the land where the braais sizzle, the steaks are the size of doormats and the locals complain if the temperature drops below 25C, they sniff with disdain at White's collection of touring personnel, the arrows of the outraged winging their way unrelentingly towards White's heart.

The Springbok coach has already said he will not continue after the World Cup next year, whatever the outcome. He finds handling the manic demands of South Africa's rugby-obsessed white population increasingly hard. "I don't feel I could do this job for another four years," he says. "The pressures are immense, and it's only when you have some time to reflect that you realise the price you pay.

"I will always feel honoured to have been asked to coach my country. I am proud of that and proud to have played a role, to have contributed. But being away from home for such a long time takes its toll, and I have become increasingly aware of the cost to my family. I call home and try to chat with my boys, but because you spend so much time away, it's not easy. You fear you are losing that closeness, and maybe it's inevitable.

"It wouldn't be fair even to think about staying. So hopefully I will finish with that gold trophy in my hands and a smile on my face. Originally I thought I would like to stay on until the Lions tour in 2009. But the toll is increasing all the time."

Yet for all the disappointments recently - the Boks finished bottom of this year's Tri-Nations - one thought remains: South Africa are one of only three sides (Australia and France are the others) who could beat New Zealand in next year's Rugby World Cup.

Why South Africa? Well, they have beaten the All Blacks in each of the past three years. They have the muscular might to handle them up front and the physical bravery to cut them down relentlessly behind the scrum. Watching Victor Matfield tackle Byron Kelleher so hard that he laid out the scrum-half in Cape Town last year confirmed that.

But the Springboks arrive in the northern hemisphere without their heavy hitters. The world's top second-row pairing, Matfield and Bakkies Botha, are not coming, nor is the prop Os du Randt, the totem of the pack. Then there is Schalk Burger, another key figure, who is out until early next year after a neck fusion operation. Neither will any of the valuable, experienced Frik du Preez, Percy Montgomery, Joe van Niekerk or Jaque Fourie make the trip. Ashwin Willemse is another who will be missing, through injury.

That represents nine members of a possible Springbok World Cup side. Thus, White will use the tour to have a look at some youngsters. And South Africa do not lack talent in that category. The new full-back J P Pietersen runs and glides as effortlessly as the great Serge Blanco once did, while the ball-handling back-row player Pierre Spies looks destined to become one of the game's great No 8s.

As the coach of New Zealand's Crusaders, Robbie Deans, says: "I'd say South Africa have more talent than any other nation in the world. If they ever harness that talent... gee. But the challenges in achieving that are significant, and I empathise with Jake White."

Of the positives arising from this difficult year, White highlighted the fact that the World Cup is still within range. "I have no doubt it is still winnable. The way this team came back to beat New Zealand after five successive defeats proved it to me. That you can't buy. That was a sign of the real character, determination and ability we still have despite being without so many players through injury."

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