Jake White: The miracle maker
Jake White is not everyone's cup of tea. In fact the mere mention of his name will have a polarizing effect.
However, love him or hate him, the 51-year-old has a way of turning seemingly useless teams into winners.
He has two Under-21 international championships and a senior World Cup to his name – not to mention the numerous other successes he can list.
The reason I am taking up this subject is the debate White's arrival at struggling French Top 14 club Montpellier caused.
Montpellier, who had lost eight of their previous nine matches, started life under White in the perfect way with a 16-12 win over European and French champions Toulon at the Altrad Stadium. It marked the perfect end to a turbulent week at Montpellier where White took over the reins on a six-month 'consultancy' basis with previous coach Fabien Galthie placed on gardening leave.
Despite his amazing track record, he still has a host of detractors, most who often bemoan his boring defence-orientated, kick-and-chase game.
There was even reports – coming out of Durban after his departure from the Sharks – that some senior players saw White as a school principal who dealt with them as though they were his pupils.
Despite all this, there is no doubting that White has the uncanny ability to set up structures in a remarkably short period that can turn struggling teams into winners.
White first cut his teeth as an 'international' coach with South Africa's age-group teams – helping SA to win the 1999 SANZAR/UAR Under-21 title (as assistant coach under head coach Eric Sauls), before steering his country's youngsters to the inaugural IRB Under-21 Championship title on home soil in 2002 as head the coach.
This must be put into context.
In 1998 South Africa looked a lost cause at this age-group event and in his absence – in 2000 and 2001 – the Baby Boks lost to New Zealand in two successive finals, with the Bay Blacks beating them 71-5 in 2000 and led by one Richard McCaw the Kiwis won 30-13 in 2001.
However, not only did the White-coached teams win in 1999 and 2002, but those teams produced legends like John Smit (captain of the 1999 side), Jean de Villiers (current Bok skipper), Fourie du Preez and Juan Smith.
They formed the core of the group that helped win the World Cup for South Africa in 2007 – with Smit as captain.
When White took charge of his first Test with the senior Springboks in June 2004m, South Africa had slumped to a lowly sixth place on the world rankings. By December 2007 – when he was controversially pushed out by the SARU brains trust – the Boks not only had the Web Ellis Cup safely tucked away for a second time, but they were officially ranked No.1 in the world – a position they last held during the 17-match winning streak of 1997 and 1998. And they also won a Tri-Nations title in 2004.
Just to prove that he can do it with teams other than those in South Africa, White moved to Australia, where he took up office in Canberra. In 2001, before his arrival, the two-time Super Rugby champion Brumbies finished a lowly 13th. Two years later they were runners up.
And, despite the obvious disappointment of not going all the way, he also produced more positive results with the Durban-based Sharks. Yes, they did let a good start to the season slip and lost out in the semifinals last year – while their style of rugby was the source of much derision. However, it has to be remembered that the Sharks, with virtually the same player corps, finished only eighth in 2013, so their third-place finish on the standings (and winning the South African conference) is indeed a marked improvement.
Now, back to Montpellier and their win last week.
There was all kinds of talk about player power running wild in the capital of the Languedoc-Roussillon region in southern France.
One week of White's stern disciplinarian approach and they beat the top team in Europe.
That result alone speaks volumes of the man hey call the 'magic maker'.
There is a good reason why White was inducted into the IRB Hall of Fame in October 2011.
Jan de Koning