Monday 11 December 2017

'You can't fast-track European success'

Leinster’s long quest for European success has shown Montpellier boss Jake White that cracking the Champions Cup will take time.
Leinster’s long quest for European success has shown Montpellier boss Jake White that cracking the Champions Cup will take time.
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Although Jake White has climbed the highest mountain rugby has to offer, the former Springbok coach is still finding the experience of coaching at the sharp end of the European club game a challenging experience.

The South African is in his third and final season at Montpellier, a club he guided to the Challenge Cup title last season and one with big ambitions to join the elite despite their relative lack of tradition.

After coaching his native land to World Cup glory in 2007 and subsequent Super Rugby stints with the Brumbies and the Sharks, you'd imagine he'd seen it all, but he has been energised by the competition.

On Sunday, his side welcome Leinster to the Altrad Stadium on the south coast of France for what he is billing as a "do-or-die" clash.

Last Saturday, they were in a brilliant position to take control of Pool 4 at Franklin's Garden, but let it slip thanks to a poor clearing kick from Wallaby Nic White and a penalty concession from France international Alexandre Dumoulin that allowed Stephen Myler win it for Northampton Saints.


White cites inexperience as a factor in his side's inability to hold on; but a quick look at the team-sheet shows a team that was not light on caps or appearances.

Yet, he believes that international success is no guarantee of European advancement.

"Guys play Test rugby and they understand it, but it's a very different competition with a very different feel to when you're playing week in, week out," he explains.

"You play Top 14 rugby and then all of a sudden you're up against a team you don't know much about.

"You've got a guy like Pierre Spies who has 50-odd Test matches, but he's never played European Cup rugby.

"It just puts things in perspective, you can have 50 Tests for the Springboks and you can still not have a clue about what the intensity or the ambience is like inside a European Cup game; it's unique.

"You can't really fast-track that, the one thing I've noticed in European rugby over the last couple of years is that you've almost got to serve your apprenticeship.

"You look at sides like Saracens who have done well, they took a long time before they ended up winning.

"Look at sides like Leinster and Munster, it took a lot of agony at stages before they eventually got over the line.

"It shows, you can be one of the great sides and end up never winning this championship."

White says the intensity and quality of the rugby at Champions Cup level has come as something of a shock to his system.

"It was a massive surprise. When I say a massive surprise, we get sucked into our own world in the southern hemisphere," he admits.

"You get here and you see the kind of players who play in European Cup games, the kind of intensity that follows European Cup games and you realise that in the greater scheme of things it's a little like (Lionel) Messi and (Cristiano) Ronaldo and those guys who sign up for football clubs from far away.

"You understand why now, it's something unique about playing for these teams in Europe.

"You look at those 20 sides who are involved, the top teams; they're incredibly good rugby teams. There are not many there that are shoddy and you're not going to get any easy walks against one of those teams.

"So, I was surprised. Obviously, as a rugby coach you end up watching and analysing a lot of games but until you actually live it you don't realise how big it is."

White's Montpellier tenure will be cut short at the end of the season as the club owner Mohed Altrad took umbrage at his being linked with the England job after last year's World Cup and decided to replace him with Vern Cotter.

The South African's public utterances might not have helped, so it is understandable that is keeping his counsel on his next move.

"The one thing I've probably learnt more than anything is that you just focus on what you're doing now," he says. "Once you take your eye off the ball, you end up getting caught in the middle of everything.

"I've bumped my head a few times and know that I'm just going to finish off and whatever's meant to be, it's meant to be."

Last season, White guided his side to the Challenge Cup title and the semi-finals of the Top 14 and he is confident that his squad is strong enough to compete at the business end of the season; if they can negotiate their way through the difficult winter months.

That means Sunday's game against Leinster is a crucial one. Victory means they will go into the December head-to-heads against bottom seeds Castres in a commanding position as the Irish province do battle with Northampton.

Lose, however, and they are in catch-up mode.

"What I expect is that if we've given ourselves a chance come the back end of the season I'm hopeful that with what's coming and what can be added (to the squad) that we can go on and achieve good things," he says.

"It's no secret, we're playing Leinster at home and if you're being honest if you're not good enough to beat Leinster at home then you're not going to be good enough to go on and win this competition. That's the reality.

"The doors will be open come January, in December we play Castres as well but the next time we get to Northampton and Leinster we've just got to make sure that we've still got a chance to qualify from our pool.

"You don't want to be two games in and having to have to create something impossible to get out of the pool.

"So, it is a do-or-die game for us. That's no secret, but we're not under any false illusions about how tough it's going to be.

"Leinster are a good team, they blew Castres away on the weekend and that's no easy task. We play Castres regularly.

"We know it's a tough one, it's make or break but it's also a great opportunity for us to see if we're good enough to get out of our pool."

Irish Independent

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