By Chris Dutton July 13, 2012
Revival ... Jake White has helped turn the Brumbies' fortunes around. Photo: Colleen Petch
He has engineered one of the biggest surprises in Super Rugby history but what shocks Jake White the most has nothing to do with rugby union.
As the ACT Brumbies sit on the cusp of a drought-breaking finals appearance, White revealed Canberra had transformed him in ways he never thought possible. And for proof, he says you only need to look at his hair.
Being in charge of South Africa and a successful World Cup campaign took its toll, with his hair turning grey and thinning out.
But White, speaking exactly one year since his arrival in Canberra, said working in the capital has reinvigorated him.
''Never mind the colour, I think my hair has come back,'' White says with a beaming grin.
If the Brumbies beat the Auckland Blues at Canberra Stadium tomorrow afternoon, they will be guaranteed a spot in the playoffs for the first time since winning the championship in 2004.
Just 12 months ago a finals spot seemed unlikely in the foreseeable future, with the club on the brink of disaster.
But White has been the architect behind a stunning revival and while his methods are often unorthodox, he has a meticulous plan for success. ''This is like a jigsaw puzzle. I know exactly what I want it to look like and what the picture is,'' he said.
''At times [others] might not know because they can just see one corner where the water is, but I know there's a massive building on the hill on the other side.
''I know where the Brumbies want to be, I know how I want them to play and I know what players I need … but what I've enjoyed is that everyone has stayed in their lane, the CEO and the board have backed me and that's all I could ask.''
After their worst season in Brumbies' history, the demise of coach Andy Friend and the failure of a star-studded roster, White started rebuilding from the ground.
He said the organisation needed someone to take charge.
That's exactly what he did.
''There needed to be some tough calls, things that weren't working needed to change,'' he said.
''People don't like that because you take them out of their comfort zone, but that's what we had to do.''
White projects a steely exterior. He bristles if his methods are questioned and one of his trademarks is brutal honesty.
But Brumbies skipper Ben Mowen says that behind the scenes ''He's a joker''.
''He's got this unbelievable relationship with the players and that's how he brings the best out of guys.
''He's very certain about what he needs and the trust from the players comes from his experience.
''You trust him because he's honest the whole time and that's tough in sport, where honesty isn't always appreciated.''
For one of White's long-term friends and a former Springboks colleague, Alex Broun, the change in White since leaving the highly political South African rugby scene has been obvious. Losing the South African coaching position despite winning the 2007 World Cup seemed to have drained White's passion.
''This has been a real revitalising passage of his life in Canberra,'' Broun said.
''The way he was treated in South Africa was nothing short of disgraceful after he won the World Cup … no one gave the Springboks a chance to win it and when he wasn't offered [the job] again, it was pretty heartbreaking and maybe a bit of his passion drifted away at that stage.
''I remember seeing him in the last four years and he looked a bit jaded and tired. Now his hair has gone back to its natural colour, he's got a smile on his face and he's really enjoying it … Jake has been fantastic for Canberra but Canberra has been fantastic for Jake.''
White can feel the hype and expectations building in the capital.
''The heartbeat of the town is based on how the Raiders and Brumbies do, so I do feel that buzz,'' White said.
''Look at the way this team has learnt and gelled together … Imagine where this team will be in four years' time if we continue this curve - that's the exciting part.''