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Jake White reveals the one, simple criteria selectors look for in elite rugby players

By Ian Cameron

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When it comes to selecting elite rugby players, you’d be hard pushed to find a more qualified person to talk on the subject than World Cup-winning Springbok coach Jake White.


White has recently led the Bulls to a Super Rugby Unlocked and Currie Cup double and is going about the business of making the famous franchise a global force in world club rugby once again after several in the wilderness of mediocrity. Key to that has been the recruitment of high-quality players to Pretoria, often when battling significantly deeper pockets in France and the UK.

Writing in his TheXV column recently, White shed light on the selection theory that was handed down to him by a former coach.

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‘I remember that tackle’
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‘I remember that tackle’

“I was recently asked what makes a top player. It made me think back to when I was standing on the side of the field at Coetzenburg and Doc Craven was watching some ‘koshuis’ and some other rugby on the fields when there was just a multitude of players running around,” White wrote in his TheXV column.

“And then Doc said: “There goes a Springbok.” Doc was asked how he knew that, and his reply was that it was quite simple: A player had to have attributes others didn’t have.

“In South Africa, if you’re the biggest, or the quickest, or the most skilful, or the tallest or the heaviest, you have to have something other players don’t have. That is so true, having been involved with coaching the national team. There is so much talent in South Africa that you ask why some guys make it and some guys don’t.

“And the edge, the point of difference, is that you have something that others haven’t got.”


While it may sound surprisingly simplistic, White believes all great players share the trait of standing out in a particular area and it’s something he looks for in players himself.

Jake White at Montpellier
Jake White /Getty

“It depends in what era you play, against who you play, what team you play in – but the point of difference is that you can do something special, something no one else can do. It is especially so in the top countries, where there is so much competition that you have to come up with something different.”

White also points out that brilliant players will force their way onto the scene at an early age.


“Something that I learnt in my time of coaching is that no young and good player wants to hear that, ‘My time will come’.

“Naas was young when he became a Springbok, the outstanding Wallaby centre pairing Tim Horan and Jason Little were youngsters, Jonny Wilkinson seemed barely out of nappies, John Smit was a young national captain and Malcolm Marx was already rated as one of the best hookers in the world in his early twenties, while Frans Steyn and Schalk Burger are some players who had that something extra.

That attribute of, ‘I’m good enough, pick me’ is an incredible attribute of guys who go on to play in many Test matches. Interestingly, the youngsters tell you that it isn’t experience that’s needed, it’s energy, hard work and ability… and those same guys try to convince you not to chuck away experience when they come to the end of the road!”

You can read the full column here.


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