White inspires a revival in Australia’s capital
Four wins in 16 matches had left the twice champions a pitiful 13th in the 15-team competition and they limped to the season’s end with a record-equalling 41-7 defeat at the hands of the New South Wales Waratahs.
Little more than two years on and the team from Australia’s capital are just 80 minutes away from claiming the southern hemisphere’s provincial crown for a third time.
The odds may be stacked against them in Saturday’s final against the Waikato Chiefs in Hamilton but even a heavy defeat would not detract from the impact the World Cup-winning former Springboks coach has had in Canberra.
White, in his first head coaching job after leading South Africa to the 2007 World Cup, wasted no time in transforming the Brumbies off the pitch, as Wallabies prop Ben Alexander recalled this week.
“After the 2011 Super Rugby season, I did not imagine the Brumbies playing in a final two years later,” Alexander, one of the few survivors of that moribund campaign, told the Australian newspaper.
“But when I came back to the Brumbies after the World Cup, I could see changes in the work ethic and culture.
“I definitely knew then that during Jake White’s tenure at the Brumbies, we would be more than capable of getting to the final and winning it.”
White’s assistant coaches Laurie Fisher and Stephen Larkham provided a link to the Super Rugby successes of the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the Brumbies reached the final five times and won it in 2001 and 2004.
The transformation on the pitch was not as immediate but there was a gradual improvement over the 2012 season and the Brumbies came within a whisker of returning to the playoffs for the first time in eight years.
A home defeat to the Auckland Blues in the last match of the campaign put paid to that hope but the foundation had been laid and local pride was restored with home and away wins over the Waratahs.
The Brumbies really hit their stride at the start of the 2013 season by winning their first four matches, including an away win over the Sharks in Durban.
A 14-12 win by a weakened side over the British and Irish Lions – the first by an Australian provincial team over the tourists since 1971 – further boosted the team’s credentials.
Call it good luck or clever planning but White was even able to ride the loss of Wallabies openside flanker David Pocock for the season with a knee injury by virtue of having 33-year-old George Smith on the bench.
The former Wallabies captain was given permission by his Japanese club to remain for the rest of the season and has had a glorious year, including a man of the match display in last week’s semi-final win over the Bulls in Pretoria.
That win bolstered White’s reputation for building teams that can do the unexpected but perhaps his greatest success in Canberra has been in identifying talent and developing players.
Although White missed out on the Wallabies job when Robbie Deans resigned in the wake of the Lions series defeat, Australian rugby is still benefiting from his work.
Only four Brumbies were included in the Australia party which departed for the 2011 World Cup. Last week, new Wallabies coach Ewen McKenzie named 12 in his first squad.
(Editing by Patrick Johnston)