Win or lose, Saturday’s Rugby World Cup final against New Zealand marks the end of an era for Springboks rugby as Jacques Nienaber bows out as the side’s head coach.
The man is often referred to as Rassie Erasmus’ sidekick. While, in truth, it is more a partnership, even described as a marriage by those closer to the pair, Nienaber has never really been given the credit he deserves.
Perhaps it is because he never played professional rugby or went through the traditional pathways before becoming the Springboks head coach. Or it could be that he worked as a physiotherapist and strength and conditioning coach before tackling the demands of a coaching gig.
But those in the know truly respect the work and rugby IQ that Nienaber possesses, having had success everywhere he has gone along with his long-time mate Rassie.
Journey to the Springboks
For many, Nienaber has flown under the radar despite working with Erasmus as the Cheetahs, Western Province, Stormers, Munster and the Springboks.
His first taste of Test rugby came back in 2011 when he worked as the Springboks’ defence coach during the Rugby World Cup, something many would have forgotten by now. And while Australia knocked out South Africa, they boasted the best defence during the tournament’s pool stages. This came after turning the Stormers into one of the best defensive sides in Super Rugby earlier that year.
He continued his work with the Stormers even after Erasmus left to join South African rugby structures and drew significant interest from the Bulls at the time.
Nienaber would reunite with Erasmus in 2014; however, he would link up with Erasmus on a full-time basis after joining the new formerly ‘mobi unit’ a year prior.
In this role, Nienaber and his fellow coaches who were contracted to SA Rugby would assist elite teams at all age levels of the game.
The group of coaches would travel South Africa, offering their expertise to assist the development of players and coaches.
Developing South Africa’s talent
In this role, Nienaber would advise teams and players on defensive plays and would get to meet some of the future stars of his Springbok team.
“Before I joined the Springboks, I was the high-performance manager at South Africa Rugby. Of the EPD programme, Rassie (Erasmus) was general manager of rugby, and I was underneath him,” Nienaber explained ahead of his final game in charge of the Springboks.
“Damian Willemse was in the EPD (Early Player Development) programme, Manie Libbok, Jessie Kriel, Malcolm Marx, all guys I’ve worked with since they were 17. That’s what makes it so special.
“That’s why I enjoy the time with the players. I just sat in the changing room having a drink after one of the training sessions, looking at the players, and I had a story from every single one.
“Ox Nche at his rugby club and a first scrummaging session. I was wondering who is this guy and where’s he from. They were just dreaming to become Springboks. Fair play to them; they haven’t changed. They don’t have egos.
“The same Manie [Libbok] that was 17-year-old in a schools side with Damian Willemse, they are the same people. They haven’t become big-headed. If they are not selected, they take it on the chin as they know it’s for South Africa, just like they did back then.
“It’s about teaching schoolkids, see how they grow as a person, how they become fathers, how they become men. It’s unbelievable to have been part of it, starting back in 2013. That’s 10 years now.”
While Erasmus is seen as the media and mind games mastermind, Nienaber is the complete opposite. He very rarely, if ever, did a one-on-one interview and barely spoke to the media during his earlier coaching stints.
When he and Erasmus returned from Munster, he would take on the press conference more often as he became more comfortable in a role that he would have to fulfil after the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
Even now, after four years in the role as head coach, he can often seem uncomfortable in fronting the press conferences.
But for Nienaber, it’s simple: he just wants to coach, to get out on the training pitch and improve and interact with his players daily and for the spotlight to be completely away from him.
Siya Kolisi’s praise
The Rugby World Cup final against the All Blacks will be his last involvement for the Springboks, at least for some time, before he heads off to Ireland to link up with Leinster. And while he would not want to the chatter to be about him this week, that hasn’t stopped his colleagues and players from praising the work he has done and the type of person he is.
Springbok captain Siya Kolisi led the praise of Nienaber after the semi-final victory over England.
“I was 18 years old. I was contracted with the Cheetahs, and then I was able to go to Western Province. That is when I met Jacques,” he said.
“When Jacques came, it was the full contact there, and you had to show who you are. Every time they came, it was intense. I got to know him then, and as I went on, he became my senior coach. And one thing I love about him is he goes far deeper than what is happening on the field. He got to know me, my family, and why I do what I do. He speaks to us with human courtesy.
“They don’t encourage us to tackle hard – we all know what that is. He knows my kids by name and asks me how I am doing as a person, and that is why I can go and give him everything on the field because he cares about the person; he cares about Siya from the township. For the teams, especially in big moments, he talks about each and every player’s journey. It is so special to be known as a person, not just as an object or a rugby player. That’s what he brings to this team.”
— Jared Wright (@jaredwright17) October 22, 2023
High praise from his assistants
Later in the week, assistant coach Felix Jones added: “Jacques is an incredible person. Unbelievable work ethic; I’ve never seen anything like it.
“This week has been the exact same as any other. Same process. I’ve learnt a huge amount about how to build my week as a coach, not for me but for the delivery by the team.”
Deon Davids echoed Jones’ sentiments and hailed the environment Nienaber and Erasmus had created amongst the coaches and players.
“As a coaching team, we have a very good relationship in terms of how we deal with things, always looking together for solutions, not taking praise for different departments but seeing everything as a collective approach, how we look at things and how we can complement each other,” he said.
“The leadership comes from Jacques and Rassie in terms of how they empower us to do things and share their experience. That flows down to the leadership group of the players – their input and insights and what they think will work – because we have a lot of experience within the group.
“Working in an environment like that, everyone works towards a common goal, and you are led in that way. It is fantastic to be in such a dynamic environment.”
He heads into his last Test match in charge with a 68 per cent win ratio, a ratio that sits seventh overall in Bok history.
But regardless of the result against the All Blacks, Nienaber bows out as a legend of Springboks rugby, a pioneer of defensive strategies that influenced much of what we see today and won a Rugby World Cup title.
A coach who liked to operate in the shadows before being thrust into the limelight but a coach whose work should not go unnoticed, underestimated or underappreciated.