Coaching great, not easy – Jake

Jake White

Guy Noves spent 13 seasons with Toulouse as a player and then coached in the Pink City for 22 seasons, finishing up with four Heineken Cup titles and nine French championships.

It looked like Noves was living the dream when he was appointed the head coach of France after the 2015 Rugby World Cup, but he’s just been awarded €1m (R16m) in damages for unfair dismissal after a long legal battle against the French Rugby Federation. He fought to clear his name after becoming the first head coach of France to be sacked before the end of his contract.

The face of Toulouse for decades, Noves claims that he has struggling personally as a result of his ordeal with the FFR. Most people will say, “struggling personally? You must be joking?” but his situation is a very real downfall of life as a professional coach.

It got me thinking about whether rugby supporters are aware that the job is a lot tougher than just running field sessions and drinking champagne out of a big cup.

As a professional coach, you’ve got to manage a staff that you often haven’t picked yourself, and sometimes that staff doesn’t think the same as you. In sport you need the people involved to have a bit of an ego, to rate themselves, to walk the line between confidence and arrogance, and that can create conflict when you’re not aligned.

You may have a staff member on a long-term contract who is actually upset that he wasn’t given the head coaching role. So you’ve got to manage that guy because he’s not in a positive frame of mind and may not always be trying to help you win.

Then you‘ve got another guy who doesn’t really believe in what you’re trying to do, but you can’t get rid of him because the team can’t afford to pay him out. That’s why coaches fight so hard to have their own staff around.

A coach also usually inherits a squad, with some guys that he might not have recruited. Sometimes the board hires a coach to come in and light a fire under players who are relaxing in a comfort zone. And with that, some players will fight you, and then you’ve got to get rid of them. That is never easy and it seldom ends with a smile and a handshake.

Ask any experienced professional player or coach and they will tell you about the empty clichés some players will say in the media. They’ll be quoted saying, “it’s fantastic to play with these legends,” but what supporters don’t know is that, behind the scenes and in the team room, that guy is a prick. What he says and does are two different things and as a coach you’ve got to manage him. Not all of those are success stories and not all of them end well.

And then, depending on what country or club you’re with, you have to report to board members, committees or owners that have their own view of what should or shouldn’t happen on the field. And sometimes, what they sell you about the job is not what you get. Maybe the CEO told you that you’ll have free rein to run the show, but once you’re in the job those promises don’t materialise.

Michael Cheika was allowed to get rid of Wallabies assistant coach Stephen Larkham, but now his bosses have appointed Scott Johnson as the director of rugby. It just shows how many moving pieces there are behind the scenes.

And while players have license to live in their emotions, the coach has always got to be the rock that keeps the team positive and on track.

Before he won the 2003 Rugby World Cup, Clive Woodward told me that you can’t win and be popular because you have to be forceful about getting what you need to win. If you’re not, you’ll get fired because of bad results, and if you are forceful, you upset people along the way.

At the end of the day, the coach carries the can and, no matter what sport you’re in, your currency as a coach is results. It doesn’t matter if you’re a nice guy and “good with players” if you don’t win. To win you sometimes have to make unpopular decisions, and that’s why experience is vital, because if you’ve been there and done it you learn what is non-negotiable.

While many of these things happen in everyday jobs too, you’re not trialled by the media and your job is not reviewed by your bosses every seven days.

But that’s part of the reason pro coaches take the job – that’s part of the adrenaline we enjoy. Coaches want to be on the cutting edge where wins and losses mean the most and that comes with real pressure. For us, that’s what we mean when we talk about “living the dream”.

People think I’ve got a great job, and I do. I wear a tracksuit to work, and get to interact with all sorts of people from all over the world. I spend a lot of time living in a hotel where your meals are cooked for you and your washing is done for you. It’s fantastic.

But there are also real negatives. On Friday night, there were people filtering out of Ellis Park before the final whistle because the Lions were losing, and that’s a team that’s been the top franchise in SA for the past couple of years and has played in three successive Super finals. That’s how quickly it can change for a pro coach.

The politics of the job can sometimes keep you up all night. Moving goalposts have a domino effect on staff and players, and there’s the loneliness when you lose and the media is having a go at you.

When I was Bok coach, I remember reading billboards that said “Jake to be fired!”, and my sons asking me whether that was true. There’s no manual to prepare a coach for that, you have to learn the hard way. And during all of those lessons you’ve got stay optimistic for the team.

Because my coaching journey has taken me to Japan, I don’t see my boys. One is in the USA and the other is in South Africa. And even if we were living together, pro coaching is one of those jobs where you don’t get to come home at dinner time. You’re away from your family and you’re under the spotlight.

I really want to emphasise, we don’t’ want anyone to feel sorry for us; coaches aren’t looking for sympathy. We are living the dream and I’m appreciative of having this unique position in life. For a boy who grew up in a relatively modest home, I’ve seen countries and places I never thought I’d come close to.

There are 7.5 billion people on the planet and I’ve got one of 1000 opportunities to coach rugby professionally.

It is a dream to have done something that is recognised and appreciated, but it does come at great cost, and people don’t see how lonely coaching can be.

- Jake White

Let's chat

  • Franco

    I would love to hear Jake’s selection of a Springbok 15 plus reserves at this point. Key areas I’d like to know would be backline and their backups, and how he would go with the locks and loose forwards. I think for a World Cup winning coach the guy got a raw deal from SA like few before him.

    • boyo

      I would like to take it even further and have him name a squad of 31 presuming everyone was fir.

    • SweetAz

      Yep, still think he’s one of the best coaches around. PDivvy inherited his team and got the kudos for it.

      • Tre

        Nope its the other way around… divvy coached them before jake..get the facts

        • Mike

          I am afraid you are confused. If Strauli coached the team for 2003 and Jake won the World Cup in 2007, how did De Villiers fit in between? He coached from 2008 to 2011. Those are the facts.

        • WP

          Your wrong bud . 2007 jake white won the World Cup . 2008 pdv took over . He coached the side to the 2011 WC in New Zealand where we lost to Aus in the QF .

        • Pieter Jon van Rensberg

          What!!! Jake, then Divvy, then Heyneker…about those facts?

      • Maxwell

        I agree that he is one of the best SA coaches, no the best coach ever. What I dont appreciate is the fact that you dishonour Pieter. We can say the same for HM when Alister took over a Bokteam with a bad reputation and Rassie riding the wave after Alisster did the groundwork.

        • SweetAz

          If Pieter is so good why hasn’t he been snapped up by a top club or some other country,- sorry to burst your bubble mate but people in the know have a real appreciation for a coach’s talent or lack thereof, if Pieter was any good he wouldn’t be coaching Zimbabwe.
          It’s an open secret that the players from Jake’s era led that team when Pieter took over, he did nothing but spout nonsense to the media making an even bigger fool of himself.

          • Maxwell

            Because he is like you. Say what he really thinks. If you say he is fool then I would like to know what it makes you. You need to stop thinking that certain a top job is for certain persons. You dont have problem,your are the problem.If the fool knows how to beat the AllBlacks then keep him as the coach.

          • SweetAz

            I didn’t start with “Pieter” Barry, if you read my post I called him Pdivvy. The “Pieter” was in response to Maxwell who called him that,—please do try keep up.

          • Barry

            As I recall Pieter De Villiers never coached the Springboks, he did consult though as a scrum coach for a bit. There was a certain Peter De Villiers, perhaps a Knob moment?

  • John Comyn

    and us the supporters don’t make it any easier. I have had many ups and downs with Jake. One month he’s the greatest coach on the planet the next he should be fired. South Africans must be the most fickle supporters in sport. I guess that is why they say the Bok coaching job is the most difficult of them all.

  • Barry

    It just highlights the vital role played by professional coaches in the modern game. What in the past was often put down to poor on field play, can now clearly be ascribed to shortcoming in coaching. There is no place to hide!

    What wasn’t fully elaborated on though, was the role that professional management play in keeping coaches motivated and on their toes and having the strength of character to make changes timely, when it become apparent that the coach is not cutting it!

    We have some examples of this currently – as the adage goes, that players don’t pick themselves, so it can be said that Coaches don’t hire themselves! Is it not also time that we started acknowledging the role that administrators play in making a team successful. So often it is either the players or coach that gets fired, but the administration survives!

    • SweetAz

      Been trying to tell you that this is the problem at the Stormers for yonks,-glad you’ve finally seen the light.

      • Barry

        Yes, but a little closer to the action than you make out!! Gert Smal has watched this fiasco go on for four seasons now and still has not made a change! Fingers are pointed at Fleck, but as I said above, coaches don’t appoint themselves!

        The Stormer’s issue is current, but let’s face it the Bulls had this problem a few seasons back and how long did SA Rugby linger before they realized that Coetzee was floundering?

        • Mike

          It is all about the money. The moment Wakefield and his board rejected Mitchell as coach, Smal lost all his power. From that point onward he was a figurehead. Now they are broke and can’t afford a proper coach anymore. That probably happened because they appointed a poor coach. Fans like winners. A losing side does not fill a stadium.

          • Barry

            Mike appreciate circumstances are difficult, but I think people let Smal off the hook a little easily. He could for example just have swopped Dobson and Fleck around. No additional cost and no recruiting.

            It would have made a difference and would have given the support base some hope. Certainly better than just doing the same broken thing year after year!

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