The long, lonely crusade of Bulls coach Jake White

rugby03 April 2024 11:31| © SuperSport
By:Brenden Nel
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Jake White © Gallo Images

In terms of crusades, it isn’t the worst one to have.

A World Cup-winning coach fighting not only for his coaching legacy, or to make one of the country’s oldest franchises a world power in rugby, but also to treat local fans to the sight of their biggest stars.

But it is a losing battle, yet Vodacom Bulls Director of Rugby Jake White fights it anyway.

He is unlikely to get sympathy from the national cause - the Springboks have won back-to-back World Cups by allowing the core of their group to earn their fortunes around the world, and have found a way to make that work for the national cause.

But White sees it differently. While national success is always welcomed, his viewpoint of South Africa first sees a system where the local interest feeds the national interest and not act as a feeder system to richer club systems around the world.

The drain of players to overseas clubs, aided by a weak currency and professional setups abroad has always been a problem in the professional era. It seemed to reach its height during the terms of Heyneke Meyer and Allister Coetzee, with the latter’s poor Bok record much to do with the policy of only picking locally-based players.


But Covid, the entry into Europe and a lot of equity investment has changed that. While the Sharks in particular have been the biggest spending forces to lure top talent to Durban, White has, until now tried a more say hybrid approach, looking more for non-test players to fill his ranks - using their experience and knowledge while not losing a dozen or more players to test duty in a lopsided season when the Rugby Championship approaches.

Then last Friday night happened.

The Bulls went into a top of the table showdown with Leinster and in the second half were blown away by the power and pace of the Vodacom United Rugby Championship’s most consistent team.

Leinster are rightly the envy of South African coaches, having built a powerful system of player retention, top coaching talent and a smattering of international stars to fill voids. They have a continuity last seen a decade ago in South African rugby and are always looking to make themselves stronger.

The opposite is true of South African franchises - losing players on a regular basis as agents talk big cash offers and the opportunity of a life abroad with a big payday is often too hard to resist.


It has meant that often more than half the Bok team is based abroad, while up to 400 other South Africans ply their trade for foreign paymasters. It is an impossible system to stop, especially while the rand remains significantly weaker than other currencies

But back to the Dublin drubbing that had White holding court on his return again, preaching the same message that he has drummed on over and again.

“At 14-12 up, I thought we were doing quite nicely and then they brought on (Irish internationals) Tadgh Furlong, Caelan Doris, Jamison Gibson-Park,Dan Sheehan. The list goes on and on. And not taking anything away from the players we have, because it was a good measurement for us as a group,” White said.

“But this tournament has been going on for three years and we lost the very first game against them 31-3 and if I look back three years, we’ve grown a lot as a group and added some quality players to our group.


“The reality is that in the last three years that group would have played three Six Nations, won two, a World Cup, beaten the Boks twice, beaten the All Blacks twice and played in two European Cup finals against La Rochelle.

“So if you just analyse, without being emotional about it, the development of a squad like that is unheard of. To be exposed to that kind of intensity and opposition, it can only make you better.

“I’m not throwing the baby out with the bathwater now, we were alright in the first half, we stayed in the fight, they went up a few gears in the second half and got away.

“We still have a long way to go in terms of time together. People ask me what I need and I need time for these players to grow together in those positions. One of the things I did was to put the whole bench on so that the players could feel how it feels when a team has got you by the throat.

“We will be better for that going forward.”

White knows he is unlikely to ever fulfill his “Christmas wish list”, as he calls it, and get the players back to the Bulls.


In the past eight years they have lost the likes of Trevor Nyakane, Pierre Schoeman (Scotland), RG Snyman, Jason Jenkins, Jannes Kirsten, Marvin Orie, Nicholaas Janse van Rensburg, Le Roux Roets, Irne Herbst, Lappies Labuschagne (Japan), Arno Botha, Lood de Jager, Ivan van Zyl, Jesse Kriel, Warrick Gelant, Handre Pollard, Rosko Specman and Jan Serfontein to name just a few. Have a look at the squads from every season and there are dozens of names that have either faded away, left or simply are playing at other teams across the world.

In the same time Cian Healy, who started against the Bulls, earned his 275th cap last Friday, underlining just how good Leinster’s player retention is compared to the challenges facing South African teams.

To their credit, White and the Bulls have started signing players on longer contacts. Cameron Hanekom is penned till 2027, Celimpilo Gumede till 2026 but there is always the danger of a big money transfer fee being able to lure them away.

So what can White do about it? What is the answer. Given the challenges, White has pleaded for time with the same group - trying to keep them together and not lose more players to overseas clubs.


“We need time, when Furlong comes on and we bring on Mornay Smith, and they bring on Gibson-Park and we bring on Zak Burger. We’re talking about guys who have more test caps than we have URC caps. It is not a case of men against boys, it is being realistic.

“It reminded me of playing a really good team like the Crusaders, a well oiled Super Rugby side, and that is where we want to get to.

“I want to be able to run out of the changeroom and have a seasoned team of players who have played over 100 times for their province. That is why I keep banging the drum that we can’t have a situation where we coach guys to pay their school fees here, and then they go on to play for other big clubs.

“We want to be leaders, but you only get that by keeping your team together for many years. Look at the Springbok team, they have been together for eight years, that is a recipe for success.

“That is not a hidden secret. If I look at the team, and I’m not taking away from the team or anything they have, but if we had RG Snyman, Lood de Jager, Trevor Nyakane, Hanro Liebenberg, Ivan van Zyl, I can tell you the scoreline wouldn’t have been the same, and that is just because they are seasoned, older, a bit wiser and have experience.

“I’m old enough to know that that was what it was like in the old days, when those guys would have been playing for their provinces.

“I can only control what I can control and what I can control is - I need this group to grow in the next couple of years and the one way to do that is to put them in pressure situations like that and see whether they sink or swim.”


The reality for White is that with the Bok success, the national outlook is unlikely to change while it works for the Boks.

But he does have a valid argument that while it is good for the Boks, it isn’t necessarily good for the lifeblood of South African rugby - the franchises who play the bulk of professional rugby.

And if a player does want to travel and has a big money offer, how do you stop them from accepting a lucrative offer?

White’s only hope is to have deep pockets of his franchise’s owners, creating an environment that players don’t want to leave and the fighting spirit that is normally apparent in SA teams.

On Friday night in the second half the Bulls lost that as their heads dropped and the scoreline ballooned.

They need to regroup and refocus, be clever with their resources and hope for a big response from the players.

Because while White’s crusade is noble, it is unlikely to succeed in the short term.

And for the Bulls to fulfill his dream he will need to cobble together a coalition of talent, resources and a commitment that is rarely seen in professional sport.

And that may be his most difficult task of a long illustrious career.