THIS morning, when Jake White escaped from the Bulls’ team hotel in Dublin’s silicon docks for a snack, he came across a local wag who asked him if the chocolate bar in his hand was going to help him beat Leinster.
The man who led the Springboks to the 2007 World Cup could afford a smile. He’s in town for the United Rugby Championship opener at Aviva Stadium tomorrow night and has seen it all.
During his time as South Africa coach in 2004, White caused a stir when he announced that none of the Irish players would join his squad.
Almost 20 years later, he’s made a much more dovish figure in assessing the challenge of facing the five consecutive RCU champions.
White was a young coach when Super Rugby was launched in the 1990s and is now part of a brave new dawn as South African heavy hitters are part of the European scene.
Of the four new franchises, the Bulls seem in the best position to do well this season.
The 2007, 2009 and 2010 Super Rugby winners won the recent Currie Cup and reached the Rainbow Cup final last summer.
A sobering defeat for Benetton in Treviso gave them a taste of the culture shock they find themselves in on their European tour and White has vowed to prepare them for the challenge.
It doesn’t get any more difficult than the test they will face tomorrow.
Still, White and his senior officials have first-hand experience of what Leinster has to offer.
Coach of Montpellier, he has faced Leinster several times in the Champions Cup and players Jacques and Bismarck du Plessis have done the same. Arno Botha is a former Munster player, Marcel Coetzee was Ulster’s talisman and Johann Goosen played with Johnny Sexton at Racing 92. Add former Springboks winger Cornal Hendriks who played in Dublin against Ireland and you have an experienced kernel.
Still, the Bulls don’t have their current Springboks on board and White has a host of less familiar faces in their ranks.
So, during his 24-minute press conference this morning, he chose to make the hosts a benchmark for his team.
Tomorrow will show the Bulls where they stand, while the long term goal is to match them.
“What I say to the guys is that he is a stranger to us, we are playing against a quadruple European champion,” he said.
âIt’s like Barcelona in football, whether they call it Magner’s League or Celtic League or PRO14, they’ve always been there or pretty much.
âSo there isn’t much to say this weekend.
“The picture is pretty clear, you have one of the best teams in Europe in mind. It’s a great opportunity for us.”
White studied Leinster closely.
âWhen we joined Super Rugby in the 1990s the Auckland Blues were the dominant team and then the Crusaders dominated – we saw how many titles they won,â he said.
âPeople are watching them and trying to find out some things about the way they do things, they signed Ronan O’Gara as an assistant and Pablo Matera as a player. They do things a little differently.
“You look at Leinster, they are by far the leaders in European rugby.
âOf course there are the Saracens, but when you look over the years what Leinster has done, the coaching philosophy, the signing of foreign coaches, the players they have.
âThere’s a secret in what they’ve done, there’s the Scott Fardys who come in and add so much value.
âWhen you look at the way Leinster did things, you can’t go too wrong if you want to win this competition than to almost emulate what they did.
âRecruiting is based on the winning formula. The style of play, they don’t win this competition by winning 6-3 or 9-7, there’s a reason they dominated.
“I hope we can almost imitate what they did.
“That’s the challenge.
“I’m not saying we’re going to catch up with Leinster, but when you’re an elite team you always evolve and grow and there is enough to learn.
âWe have to score tries, get bonus points. You won’t win this without combinations of players who often play together.
âLeinster showed that when he loses players in Six Nations, the next group of players in the Academy is at the same level.
“This is where we are coming from.”
White accepts that his experience and that of Botha and Coetzee in particular will be invaluable in understanding the challenge ahead.
“This is something we talked about last night, these two guys played in Ireland and know the Irish psyche,” he said.
“They played these players several times in Leinster with Ulster and Munster.
“I’m lucky that when I was in Montpellier we were playing Leinster at home and away, I have firsthand experience of what it’s like to play them.
“Jacques du Plessis was in this team, Bismarck faced them afterwards.
“It’s not just about Leinster tomorrow, don’t take anything away from them, but there are 21 games and a quarter-final.
âOne thing we can learn from Leinster is that it’s not just the first game, they lost the first game and won several of these championships.
âEven though they start out slow, lose players to the national team, they end up strong.
âWhat we talked about is that it’s a great benchmark for us to see where we are at in this competition.
âThe experience they have, they shared a lot about what it is and what makes Irish players prepare for the big games.
âPlaying at the Aviva Stadium is a serious game for Leinster fans and players and that’s what you want to be a part of.
“It’s nice to have the experience and knowledge of what to expect, but it doesn’t help unless you use it to your advantage.”
Unsurprisingly, White was asked about the punishment experience in Italy last June when Benetton blew up unsuspecting South Africans.
Certainly he feels that they have learned their lessons.
“There were a lot of references to that Benetton game and how poor we were and it’s true. We learned from that, we learned a lot of lessons there,” he said.
âOne was the trip. I know it’s a similar time zone, but you still have to go to Treviso, different environment and feel and different issues.
âIt was our first time playing in front of a crowd, there is a big crowd expected this week but we probably played in front of 4000 back then and yet it was such a different experience.
âWe grew up as a team, learned a lot of lessons.
“We received a lesson in rugby from Benetton, so we have to make sure that tomorrow we learn from it.
“The team is a little different, some of the combinations are more suited to play in the northern hemisphere against a very good team like Leinster.”
After two decades of Super Rugby this is a whole new challenge for the big four South African franchises and White believes the conditions, refereeing and length of the season will all be challenges his team will have to overcome. .
âInterpretations of the law, the game is adjudicated a little differently in the north,â he said.
“I saw that in Benetton’s game it doesn’t mean it’s right or wrong, but in southern hemisphere competitions there is a similarity between the way matches are played and rewarded The results are similar.
âIn the northern hemisphere, the arbitration and also the conditions are so different.
âWe face Leinster in front of 38,000, Edinburgh in front of 7,000 and Zebre in pouring rain and mud in mid-January without the internationals – it’s a whole different game.
âIt’s so unique in this competition.
âYou play Leinster after playing a Heineken Cup semi-final or a week before facing the Saracens away, it’s really different to catch them on a weekend when all their internationals are available and d ‘try to be part of the Irish test for the fall series.
âThe draw and the availability of these players will influence the way you play and the type of results you want to get out of it.
“Tomorrow is pretty cool, we would love to have our Springboks here, but so be it, but it’s a real benchmark for us first to see where we are in northern hemisphere rugby , which is different. “
White recognizes the magnitude of the challenge. His team are ranked by the bookies as the fourth best team in the competition, but they are 25-point underdogs at Aviva Stadium.
If they can bring Leinster a little closer, he can enjoy that chocolate bar and look forward to a promising campaign.