White's booing apology had deeper intentions

rugby11 December 2023 09:54| © SuperSport
By:Brenden Nel
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Jake White © Gallo Images

Vodacom Bulls coach Jake White’s apology on behalf of his side for the booing that targeted England captain Owen Farrell in this weekend’s Investec Champions’ Cup game against Saracens may not have hit the right note with everyone, but was done over a genuine concern for the plight of players struggling with mental health issues.

White spoke at length on Friday about what an exceptional player Farrell is and that what a privilege it was to be able to see some of the top players in world rugby on South African soil, especially as a number of sides send second-string outfits to away games in the competition.

And considering the decision Farrell had made just 10 days earlier to take a break from international rugby and concentrate on his and his family’s mental well-being, White was probably hoping for a less hostile reception for the England captain.

But while White’s intentions may have been sound, Farrell has long been a player loathed by South African fans, especially after the way he celebrated getting away with a high shot in a November international in 2018 and a number of other incidents, including refusing to wear the World Cup runners-up medals in 2019.


While respecting the kicker is an ideal that rugby strives for and some countries - notably Ireland - tend to do just that, it may have been expecting too much for fans to do the same with Farrell.

White’s concern obviously is for a player struggling with bigger issues, but fans booing players isn’t exactly something new.

There has to be a distinction between that and the vile social media abuse that does much more harm to players as they try and navigate their careers. After all, in the recent World Cup, the French fans booed almost every single Bok move in the playoffs, and are notorious in the Champions’ Cup for turning home grounds into intimidating fortresses.

White equated Farrell with Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan, which may have been pushing it a bit, but certainly shows how high a regard he holds the England captain.


“Let me say firstly I’m apologising about all of the booing for Owen Farrell, it isn’t what we are about,” White said after the game.

“I don’t understand why, I think people have just jumped on the bandwagon in terms of all the negative media, which I don’t understand.

“I said it in the week, he is an unbelievable player and what he has achieved in England has been phenomenal. I’m really disappointed because I wanted people to enjoy the fact that you get to see him at Loftus.

“You equate that to watching Tiger Woods play at golf, or Michael Jordan at basketball. So I’m apologising for that, because that is not who we are, and we will address that.”

But Loftus has always been intimidating, especially to foreign teams. There is a reason no team from Europe has won in SA since the Bulls left Super Rugby. Australian rugby teams voted Loftus the most intimidating ground several years ago and the Bulls pride themselves on making it a tough place to win.

So there should be a distinction between a hostile crowd and deliberately targeting a player. And while booing should always be frowned upon, when fans pay for their tickets, they can react within reason however they see fit.


In a larger picture part of the reason why White is concerned is the growing amount of social media abuse and the way it has infiltrated the mainstream and is affecting rugby players nowadays.

The Bulls had their own case with S’bu Nkosi, who went AWOL with mental health problems and eventually left the franchise after they had bent over backwards to help him.

White last Friday addressed these growing concerns in rugby about mental health and the impact of fan abuse on players.

“Let me say this, rugby union is still very far behind professional sport in other codes and we haven’t probably scratched the surface in terms of players that have struggled mentally or with gambling issues. All these other sporting codes have gone through that. We have a full time sports psychologist as you know - Henning Gericke and he is on call 24/7 for any player.

“I can only talk from our point of view, but it is a very important part of the way we operate and helping players understand that this is not the real life - standing in front of a queue, getting dropped off at your hotel, having a buffet of food waiting for you, having your bag delivered, flying on a chartered plane for rugby games is not really how the rest of the world operates.

“Part of that, as a coach and a mentor, you have to teach that to them. And as part of the Bulls, we appreciate that a lot and we talk about it a lot.


“Kids go through divorces, go through difficult times with parents and all those things need to be addressed. You can’t just think that because he is a rugby player, he won’t go through those sort of difficulties.

“It is a work in progress and I can’t talk for other teams but I can say we are really aware of it and we do work really hard in opening doors and communication channels for everyone who wants to come and chat for us.”

So when he spoke afterwards about the booing, it needs to be seen in this context, with the caveat that there are deeper conversations needed about preparing players for a world of social media, and handling the particular stresses of their careers.

And conversations needed about just where the line is between fervent support and abusing players.