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A head of sense goes a long way.

A head of sense goes a long way.

Jake White has done a remarkable job of turning around the Springboks fortunes. But, as Adrian O’Farrell outlines, it’s all been based on the application of a bit of common sense.

Rugby, apparently, is a simple game. But in South Africa, that idiom has applied but rarely over the last couple of decades.

Those two decades have seen South Africa re-emerge into the international game, take some considerable time to make up for lost ground, find itself (and a nation) while landing a World Cup, then undo much of the good work, before recently realising some of its vast potential.

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In that time, despite the relatively stress-free reign (until its end) of Nick Mallett, it has endured a degree of GUBU (for the benefit of our overseas visitors, a domestic acronym that captured the captivating essence of the soap opera that was Irish politics during the early eighties – Grotesque, Unbelievable, Bizarre, Unprecedented).

Highlights of the past few years include the Andre Markgraaf racism tapes, the Camp Barbed Wire video (which went down about as well as the eponymous Pamela Anderson flick), the shameful display in Twickenham and the Geo Cronje/Quinton Davids/Mark Keohane affair. Enough to give Charles J. Haughey and the boys a run for their money, you’d think.

And then along comes a head of sense in the person of Jake White. What he has achieved is at once remarkable and remarkably overdue. He has taken the vast resources that South Africa has at is disposal and grafted some common sense and a structure onto it.

He comes across as calm and thoughtful, which sets the tone for how he wants his side to play the game. In a recent interview with the Guardian, White said of that time,

“We were under the illusion that crying tears before the national anthem gave us the right to win Test matches. Every nation plays with passion and after 20 minutes there has to be something else.” Hmm there’s a ring of familiarity about that.

White has reverted to the basics of Springbok rugby, that which established them as one of the two great powers of the game. They used to batter teams into submission up front, and they have built their game on this reversion to type. They have very big men and they use them both at set piece (especially scrum time) and by taking ball in hand up front. In focussing on this area, he is simply making use of the Springboks USP (Unique Selling Proposition) and keeping his public and players comfortable with what they are doing.

You won’t find White telling his outhalf (as Harry Viljoen did to Percy Montgomery) that he is not allowed to kick the ball in a test match. But they have players of pace and dexterity out wide. And White uses them when it is right to do, selecting in van der Westhuyzen a player that can release their potential.

White also showed common sense not just in focussing on the young players who had won the Under-21 World Cup for South Africa, but also in bringing back a few older heads to give them, well, heads of sense. Hence Percy Montgomery, Jaco van der Westhuyzen and Os du Randt were rehabilitated.

He has also been straight, but sharp, with his players. He announced prior to Ireland’s tour there in June that players that failed to reach a necessary standard of fitness wouldn’t be considered. When as many as ten failed to reach the required level, he temporarily dropped them onto special training regimes to get them to catch up. The result was a fitter squad, but also an understanding among his players that he wouldn’t settle for sloppy standards.

Uniquely, he has managed the racial aspect of the squads adroitly. There is a common perception in South Africa that there is a quota system in place that keeps the government off the backs of the union. White has always selected players of colour, 11 of 33 on this tour, but maintains always that they are there on merit.

“I just can’t believe people see the negatives. You don’t necessarily have to agree with everything the guy next to you does, but you have to respect the fact he has his beliefs as well. You’re talking about a hugely diverse group. If you don’t have mutual respect you’re not going to go anywhere”. See, what did I say? A head of sense.

Interviewing him before the Irish tour in June, I asked him what he was looking for from the tour. “Two wins” was the admirably succinct reply. No talk of ‘growing as a team’, ‘playing to our potential’, ‘establishing patterns’ or that kind of claptrap. His perspective was that South Africa has a wealth of resources and if it makes the most of them, of course they should be beating Ireland. And shouldn’t be afraid to come out and say it. He is, of course, right. South Africa has almost 17 times the adult male playing population that Ireland has. When one looks at it in that context, it seems remarkable that we were half-expecting a drawn series. His comments this week re two or three of the Irish side getting into the South African one may grate, but then again, I’m sure he’s playing to his own public with this one.

Ireland’s efforts were made to look considerably better in the rear view mirror when South Africa went on to win the Tri-Nations.

Still and all, I quite fancy our chances this Saturday. Bit then, that’s the nature of Irish sports fans. Perennial optimists. How else could we have survived the dark years?