Vodacom Bulls coach Jake White is on the comeback trail from a near-death experience that opened his eyes and reignited his rugby fire.
He hopes to see 40 000 at Loftus when his boys host the DHL Stormers in a SA rugby’s biggest North v South Vodacom United Rugby Championship derby in a fortnight but he also wants everyone to appreciate the joy in just being able to be there, as opposed to being there for a specific result.
Don’t misinterpret this as White not wanting the Vodacom Bulls to win, but rather a reminder that the beauty of the game is bigger than any individual, team or result and just getting to watch showdowns of this pedigree is privilege.
“I see things completely differently now,” White said, less than one month removed from emergency surgery and a week in intensive care to save him from a blood clot that wrecked his small intestine.
“Rugby is fantastic and working in professional sport and coaching a in league like the Vodacom URC is a privilege. I’m still driven to be competitive and I never want to be in a place where I’m doing this job for the sake of it. But, after this experience, I’m working with a completely different framework on how to motivate players, and how to get balance in life.
“Life experiences like these really make you grow as a coach. As much as the game, technology and coaching methods have changed considerably in recent years, an experience like this greatly helps you to coach better because the perspective it provides means you talk differently – from a place of life experience.”
On Sunday, 8 January, two days after the Vodacom Bulls had beaten Dragons RFC 29-14 at Rodney Parade, White went under the knife in a two-hour operation to salvage his small intestine.
White makes it clear that, while he remains a red-blooded coach with a steely determination to drive the Vodacom Bulls to the title, this sudden, close brush with death gave him crystal clarity on how to order his life, something he believes will greatly benefit the Vodacom Bulls.
“Look, the doctor told me that the first question I asked as I came out of the theatre was, ‘Did the Stormers win?’
“I went in while they were playing Glasgow, and the reason I wanted to know was because of the implications to our campaign and because of my competitive edge. I will never lose that.
“But it also made me think, if we were unbeaten and I had died that night on the operating table, would it have made a difference? Would it have made me feel any different, if we had not lost a game all season?
“Lying in intensive care with pipes down your throat gives you time to think clearly. It’s an experience that has taught me about balance, and how quickly things can change. Rugby isn’t the be-all and end-all, even if you’re as competitive as I am. And what that means is I’m going to be very different as a coach.
“I can now use real-life experience to talk about how quickly it can all be over. I’m going to coach with a focus on playing with a smile – and living it, not just saying it. I’m going to actively push that as part of my mantra now, and for the players to genuinely smile because it’s fun, it’s a joy and a privilege to be able to get to play.
“Now I’m looking forward to getting back and being the guy who really keeps loving rugby. It hasn’t always been like that. When you get burnt or scarred by the game, you feel very low at times. But this sort of thing makes you realise, in the bigger scheme, to keep the highs and lows in context. And to keep it real.
“I can’t wait to get back to work, to exude the excitement I want these guys to live by every weekend.”
‘Excitement’ may not be a word being bandied about much as the Vodacom Bulls have lost five of their last seven matches, including three of their last four Vodacom URC clashes. Here again, White has a renewed outlook on circumstances.
“I see things completely differently, we’re in a wonderful place. That doesn’t mean we’re going to win it, but we’re in it.
“The truth is we’re not good enough to have the high road in every competition we play in. We’re not Leinster, yet. We strive to be the team that runs out at home in the playoffs of multiple competitions, but we’re still putting a team together, and sometimes you’ve got to go on the low road and play away in the play-offs.
“But it’s all about perspective. Right now, we are seven points ahead of where we were this time last year and we made the final. And this season we’ve played more away games than any other team, and that’s in a competition where the win-rate away from home is 25%.
“If you put that all together, we are very much alive in this race. And take it from someone who knows the feeling when I tell you, all we need to be is alive.