Top 14: Why Jake White’s approach was his downfall at Montpellier
South African Jake White is set to be replaced as Montpellier coach by Vern Cotter next summer – here's a look at where he went wrong
The saddest thing about Jake White’s departure is that no one much cares in Montpellier. As this column reported in May, the former Springbok coach has never courted the affection of the locals. Big mistake. White isn’t the first Anglophone coach to fail in France, and he won’t be the last, but that a man of his experience should have so utterly misread the French psyche suggests stubbornness or vanity got the better of him.
It went wrong from just about the first moment White arrived at the club in January 2015 and made an ill-judged joke about Montauban. Then he fired a lot of French players, hired a lot of South African players and got them playing a style of rugby that bored Montpellerians to tears.
I know Montpellier well. I lived there for five years. Played rugby, bought a house, raised a child. I was one of them. In as much as a Brit ever could be. They’re a hot-blooded lot in the Languedoc.
Unlike other cities on the Mediterranean coast – Narbonne, Beziers, Perpignan and Toulon – Montpellier isn’t steeped in rugby history. It’s more of a football city by nature, and rugby only really began to take hold a decade ago when the club moved to a new stadium and fielded four talented local lads in Louis Picamoles, Julien Thomas, Fulgence Ouedraogo and Francois Trinh-Duc.
The appointment of Fabien Galthié as coach in 2010 only made the club sexier in the eyes of the fans. A native of Cahors, a couple of hundred miles north of Montpellier, Galthié had the same volatile temperament as them.
Attendances rose. In the first four matches of the 2013-14 season the average gate was 13,276 and president Mohed Altrad began to dream of building a club to rival Mourad Boudjellal’s Toulon. But then he and Galthié fell out. Word has it that the former France captain is a brilliant technician but a hopeless people person. As he started to lose the dressing room Galthié swanned off to Brazil for a birthday party when he should have been preparing his team to play Oyonnax.
Altrad showed Galthié the door and brought in as his successor a man as gruff as Galthié was garrulous. White doesn’t use two words where one will do, but however many he used none were French. According to the French press, White’s failure to learn the language to any significant degree was a contributory factor in Altrad’s decision not to extend his contact.
White wanted to stay on, says L’Equipe, but his president wants him out when his contract expires in June. Tuesday’s paper states that Altrad has been searching for a successor since the summer, allegedly offering Bernard Laporte a monthly salary of €100,000 if he took the job. The former Toulon coach turned it down; his focus remains on the FFR presidency. In the end Altrad has hired Vern Cotter on a three-year deal, with the Kiwi taking up his position next June.
White was doomed, claims L’Equipe, from the day last November when he allegedly sounded out the RFU about the vacant England job. Montpellier were in London to play Harlequins in the European Challenge Cup and apparently the South African let it be known he was interested. Altrad wasn’t impressed.
But is there more to it than that? After all, White is an ambitious international coach, and it’s only natural that he’d express a mild interest in one of the top coaching jobs in world rugby.
Might not the fact that crowd numbers are on the wane have also alarmed Altrad? The average gate this season is 10,431, nearly 3,000 fewer than three years ago. Yet this is a club that last season won the Challenge Cup and reached the semi-finals of the Top 14. Fans should be flocking to cheer on their boys. But the locals don’t want to cheer for a team of South Africans, the ‘Langueboks’, as they’ve been dubbed. Of the 39 players listed on the Montpellier website, 18 are French.
Only Ouedraogo remains of that youthful quartet from a decade ago. In the summer Trinh-Duc departed to Toulon after 13 years of loyal service. There was no fond farewell for Trinh-Duc from his adoring public. White wouldn’t allow him that honour. Instead, in a spiteful gesture he dropped Trinh-Duc from the squad for the final home match of the season. Asked why by a baffled French press, a scornful White explained that professional rugby was no place for sentiment.
In a sense he’s right but sentiment matters to the French. Anachronistic, maybe, in 21st century sport, but that’s the way the French are. Trouble is, White never bothered to learn much about the French. He was too busy getting his team to play a style of rugby that was clinical and cold-blooded. Everything the city of Montpellier is not.
These are a passionate people. Proud and emotional. And sentimental, though it’s unlikely much of that will be wasted on White when he leaves.
For the latest Rugby World subscription offers, click here.