Jacques van der Westhuyzen spoke to World Cup-winning coach Jake White about his plans for the Bulls and the future of South African rugby.
Former World Cup-winning coach Jake White is back in South Africa as the Bulls’ new director of rugby. He answered 10 questions posed to him by Jacques van der Westhuyzen
Jacques: How frustrating has it been to get the Bulls job, but then not be able to get to work immediately?
Jake: It’s been frustrating that I haven’t been able to get out there onto the field with a whistle and coach. But Covid-19 and the suspension of all rugby has also allowed us here at the Bulls to reboot. And there’s been a lot to do, as you’ve seen, with the recruitment of some players.
We’ve had a chance now to get certain things in place, and that was essential. If we’d played through Super Rugby and some of the guys had gone off to the Springboks, I don’t know if we’d have got the guys in that we did.
Also, let’s not forget the three other franchises have all been fairly settled; the Lions recently played in three finals, the Sharks were the top team before the break, and the Stormers have also been settled. The Bulls have been behind everyone else, so in that sense we’ve been able to get some wins behind us.
Jacques: Why did you feel it necessary to make all the signings you have in the last few weeks, bringing in the likes of Gio Aplon, Nizaam Carr, Arno Botha, Marcel van der Merwe, Travis Ismaiel, Sintu Manjezi, Walt Steenkamp and a few others?
Jake: The Bulls finished sixth in the Currie Cup last year, and before Super Rugby was halted the team had won one of six matches; it’s not good enough. We had to strengthen the squad, upskill it, improve the level of players.
There were also simply too many guys in the system that weren’t being used and by letting them go (to be able to make the limit of 45 players) we were able to get some other guys in. The guys coming in from overseas were available and they’ll bring in plenty of experience.
Jacques: Do you now believe you have the players necessary to build a winning team?
Jake: A coach is never satisfied with his squad; he’s always looking to build it, make it better, stronger. But I’m confident we’ve got good enough players for a start, to get going. I’ve got to keep looking ahead, to the future, so I’ll always be on the lookout for who can add value and help the team grow.
Jacques: What are the key essentials for you in a winning Super Rugby team?
Jake: For me, quality depth is key. If you’ve got a strong, experienced squad, with experienced players on the bench, you’re halfway there.
The teams that perform consistently well have depth. It gives a coach the luxury of resting players regularly and putting big-game players on the bench.
Just look at the Bok team, and those guys who sat on the bench, that won the World Cup last year.
Depth also creates great in-squad competition, and it serves as an intimidation, maybe fear factor, for the opposition.
Jacques: How do you rate the strength of South Africa’s Super Rugby and Pro14 teams?
Jake: It’s a cliché, but we’ve got so much talent in this country it’s scary. I’ve coached all over the world and we still have the best juniors here, so there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be competitive on all fronts.
And to think so many of our players are lost to overseas teams, and have opted to play for other countries, like Brad Barritt (England) and Paul Willemse (France).
But we do need to sort out our coaching; that’s what’s lacking.
Jacques: What do you think of the depth and experience of SA coaching?
Jake: The coaching pathways can improve, that’s for sure.
Look at the quality, depth and experience of the coaches in New Zealand; look at Warren Gatland, and what he’s achieved in his coaching career, and now he’s back in Super Rugby. Scott Robertson has got the Crusaders to the top again, and he went through the system.
Where are all our experienced coaches? Overseas. Imagine if Johan Ackermann, Frans Ludeke, Heyneke Meyer, Allister Coetzee and even Rudolf Straeuli were still coaching, or involved locally. We’d be a stronger rugby nation for it.
Jacques: Where would you like to see SA’s top players competing – in Europe or in Super Rugby? And, does it matter?
Jake: If Super Rugby returned to the best teams playing each other in a round-robin then that’s where I’d like to see us play. The conference system, and the addition of other teams recently, diluted the competition and it hasn’t worked. Less is more.
However, the money is up north and that’s a big factor in today’s game, so it may be best to go to Europe. Travel-wise it’s also better.
The downside is that all the clubs in Europe will basically see the South African boys on trial every weekend, and do we want that? There are pros and cons, in the south and north.
Jacques: Why are the SA franchises still battling to keep up with the New Zealand Super Rugby teams and European Pro14 sides?
Jake: Player-wise we’ve never been behind them. But as I mentioned earlier, our coaching has not always been up to scratch.
Look at Leinster in Ireland – a former England head coach in Stuart Lancaster is their attack coach. That is depth and quality in the coaching team. We don’t have that here.
Just look at the difference Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber made to the Boks when they returned from coaching in Ireland for a short while.
We need more high calibre coaches with international experience in our provincial structures.
Jacques: Do you think the spread of Covid-19, and everything that has changed and is still likely to happen, could see more overseas-based players return to SA?
Jake: I think there will be a lot of guys returning to South Africa over the next few months.
Players in Europe have taken 25 percent pay cuts and clubs are maybe not as flush as they were, so the difference between what guys earn here and overseas is not as big.
I think it’ll be great to see more guys back in our rugby. And imagine all those top players going up against each other in the Currie Cup; a competition that was just about dead might just be the biggest thing in SA rugby in the next few years.
Jacques: Do you have a message for the Bulls fans, and SA rugby followers in general?
Jake: I’m loving being back in South Africa and Pretoria, where rugby is such a big thing.
Over the last few years I’ve coached in Canberra, Montpellier, and Japan, and none of those places are really big rugby places, so it’s nice to be in a city where there’s a buzz around rugby, and where the fans are a little rugby-crazy.
The Bulls are a union with a big history and lots of traditions, so I’m really happy to be here. And I can tell the fans we’re working hard to be this country’s top team again.
Generally, let’s enjoy the Boks being world champions. Not too long ago people weren’t sure if they wanted to watch the Boks.
My job now is to help the Boks stay on top; I’m here to build the Bulls team but also develop players who can go on to play for the national team. I’m excited about the future.