Life and death of a rumour: Did Jake White want the England job?
Jake White. Source: Alan Porritt / AAP
With the benefit of hindsight, and with the emotions of the matter having now been washed away by a hard-fought, last-minute win, it’s worth looking back on this whole ‘Jake White England coach head-hunted’ situation with a bit of objectivity.
It really was a weird week in the world of rugby rumours. The rumour itself had been around for a few weeks, but for no obvious reason it started building its own momentum this time last week.
Never mind that Stuart Lancaster is doing a more than reasonable job with the England squad in the Six Nations, either. England made it known after the post-Rugby World Cup resignation of Martin Johnson that they would go to the corners of the globe to find a suitably credentialed success-guaranteeing replacement.
Moreover, it seems that an existing contract will be a mere detail.
For his part, White raised a fair point on why he’s continually linked to any and every international job going. “When there’s [only] six World Cup-winning coaches… and I’m the only guy actively involved in [coaching], chances are that speculation will always be there,” he said on Wednesday.
Indeed, so swiftly had he been linked to the not-yet vacant South African job as they were bundled out of 2011 RWC, some Springbok players were still making their way from the playing surface of Wellington’s ‘Cake tin’.
Whatever the reasons for the continual speculation, the rumour wouldn’t go away. It got to the point last week where a mate sent me an email asking what I knew, which considering how thoroughly un-connected I am to these type of things, it was a sure sign that there was a bit more to this one than just smoke.
White’s statements suddenly changing was another.
Where previously we’d lost count of the number times in past months White had said, “I’m committed to the Brumbies for the next four years,” by Wednesday this had become, “They had a distraction last year and the last thing they need now is another distraction.”
With the Andy Friend saga still fresh in the average Brumbies fan’s mind, and almost a year on to the day, this news was the proverbial ‘déjà vu all over again’.
Whether they liked it or not and whether they wanted to get involved or not, the club was jolted into action. Chairman and CEO met with White to thrash it out, and it’s from here that the ‘will see out the season’ talk emanated.
By Thursday, we saw the interestingly worded statement from the Brumbies, confirming that White had been sounded out by the RFU, and that he had “declared interest in exploring his options.”
Sensing an ambush, the Brumbies canceled a photo and vision opportunity for the media, and withdrew White from the regular Thursday team announcement, leaving Captain Ben Mowen with the task of naming the team.
By this stage, however, I couldn’t blame White for “exploring his options”. The unlimited resources and pure power of the RFU making contact with a professional rugby coach must be like the local shopkeeper getting an enquiring call from Woolworths. I have no contractual obligations to The Roar per se, but rest assured that if one of the major sports media organisations made contact, I’d explore the hell out of my options, too.
From the Brumbies’ perspective though, you couldn’t help but feel sympathy. They’d thrown whatever they could at Jake White to secure him for four years, rebuilt their rugby program per his specifications, and suddenly had something pop up not of their doing that forced them into damage control.
And somehow, it was their fault too. CEO Andrew Fagan once told me he’d come to accept that he was held responsible for anything from the temperature of the Canberra Stadium pies to the starriness or blueness of the sky above it.
Sure enough, Canberra Times readers were commenting that White’s departure would be just another point “in a long list of failures and decline under Fagan.” Bows surely aren’t drawn any longer.
Then late on Friday afternoon, White unexpectedly killed the rumour dead. After refusing to rule anything out initially, and indeed very publically applying for the role ultimately, White had suddenly pulled out of the race, and re-declared his four-year commitment to the Brumbies.
“It’s [coaching internationally] something I’d look at – it doesn’t mean now, it doesn’t mean leaving my job,” White told a stunned media.
“I’m here for four years with the Brumbies. I’ve signed on the bottom line and you’ve got to judge people by their actions.
“Nothing’s changed – I’m still committed to the Brumbies.”
And that was that.
Out of all this, the only real big positive was Mowen himself. In a week of unknowns, guesswork, and rampant speculation, Mowen spoke only in truths and absolutes. “As far as I’m aware, Jake’s here for four years,” and “we’re not really thinking anything outside of [beating the Cheetahs],” remained his message.
That outstanding management of the situation in front of him followed through to Saturday afternoon, too, when on the presentation of a 75th minute full-arm scrum penalty right in front, Mowen pointed immediately to the posts despite the Brumbies trailing 23-18 at that point.
Though big sections of the crowd weren’t amused – including my baying-for-a-try wife – it was absolutely the right call, with the Brumbies dominating territory and possession, and with referee Keith Brown needing only the slightest error to penalise the Cheetahs again.
The Brumbies quickly found themselves back deep in the Cheetahs half, earned the 80th minute scrum penalty, and Christian Lealiifano found himself mobbed as the ball sailed between the uprights to secure the 24-23 win.
Mowen was now a genius, and it wasn’t hard to see why he was White’s choice to lead a new era at the Brumbies.
And though I doubt highly that my column from last week was any motivation, I was really pleased to see Matt Toomua’s running game return. I’d suggest that was his best game for the Brumbies in close to two years.
The win was the perfect reward for an unbelievably turbulent week. A dominant second half of a game played in idyllic conditions under a beautiful blue sky saw the Brumbies run over the top of the Cheetahs and keep their unbeaten 2012 account intact.
Post-match, hurrying to put the focus back on the rugby, White declared the coaching saga “finished once and for all.”
And it probably is. Until it’s not again.
Brett McKay is a former non-tackling scrumhalf and not-quite-1st Grade middle order stalwart. A rugby and cricket expert for The Roar since July 2009 (having joined in Sept 2008), Brett has written for Inside Rugby and Cricket Australia, and is also PLAY Canberra's rugby correspondent. He tweets from @BMcSport