Springbok coach Jacques Nienaber has offered insight into the strategies the team has needed to adjust to this season, and why next year will offer more opportunities to try new things.
As the Springboks prepare for this Saturday’s final Rugby Championship clash, before turning attention to a three-match end-of- year tour, Nienaber offered something of a reality check for those criticising the team for what many have suggested is a predictable and uninspiring gameplan.
“After the World Cup there were two big things we were aiming for, and the first was the Lions series, and then the 2023 World Cup,” Nienaber explained this week.
“I am not saying all the other tournaments aren’t important, but just that because the Lions tours are so rare it is more important. You are only there once, so it is a big thing. If the country wins, then I wouldn’t say you have bragging rights but you have the knowledge that you won that series for 12 years, until you play them again.
“So, that was the first focus, and then the second was 2023. Where we are currently is not where we hoped to be or imagined being when I took over as coach at the start of 2020. The plan was to start building and evolving, and to get the foundation back after the World Cup. We were going to play two Tests against Scotland and then one against Georgia.”
However, not only were the Boks deprived of any international action in 2020, but the preparation Tests for the Lions series were ultimately cut back to just a solitary Test against Georgia after a Covid-19 outbreak in the camp.
After managing a 2-1 series win over the British & Irish Lions, the Boks headed straight into the Rugby Championship, with three successive defeats suddenly ramping up the pressure on a side that was just recently being celebrated for a famous win over the Lions.
“We are right now still building towards where we were in 2019,” Nienaber commented. “What these recent games have taught me personally is what is in our DNA and what areas we need to apply pressure to and what suits our strengths when it comes to the drive to get results. We’ve found that if we deviate from that we struggle, so we need to get back to that.
“But in 2022 we should have an opportunity to try things and to start getting more experience into our rotational group. The one positive is that there have been a lot of younger guys coming into the mix.
“Unfortunately, we haven’t had much chance to give them a lot of game time, and they generally haven’t been playing. But at least when they do eventually graduate to playing international rugby the environment won’t be new to them. Guys like Grant Williams, Jaden Hendrikse and others have had a chance to experience what it is like to be with the Boks, and that also means there shouldn’t be a massive void beyond 2023 when we start building towards 2027, either.
“The extended size of the squad because of Covid has given us a big group who you could say have experienced what it is like to be a Bok and have started out on their Bok careers even if they haven’t played. Normally we’d have only 28 players with us now, because of Covid there’s a whole extra team in addition to that.
“Now that the Lions series is over and this initial period of the comeback to international rugby is over we will start building towards 2023. That is the big one from now.”
Nienaber also provided real insight into what the experience had been like for the Springboks to spend weeks on end in a bio-secure bubble.
“For an indication of where we were for much of the past few months and the challenges facing us, you need to think back to the first five weeks of hard lockdown in South Africa when the coronavirus first arrived in March last year. Remember how once level four arrived, and there was a slight relaxation and you could go out between 6am and 9am in the morning, there was such excitement that everyone became athletes. We were pretty much like it was in that lockdown during most of the time we’ve been in camp this year.
“People forget now about what it was like to be just sitting in your house, unable to go out. It was pretty much like that for 14 weeks. It has been OK for the last three weeks. After our quarantine period that we had to go through when we first arrived in Australia, we’ve now been allowed out and we can go out for coffee and that sort of thing. It’s not quite like the old normal, you could call it the new normal.
“But, while I don’t want to make excuses, it has been extremely challenging, and there have been a lot of things that were unprecedented we had to get used to. One of the things we have had to get used to is having a bigger squad. Normally you have a squad of about 28 players, so there are only five or six non-playing guys that you have to manage, but now you have a whole extra team. And they have to be here with us because if they left they wouldn’t be able to come back into the bio-bubble if suddenly we needed them.
“It has been something new for us and there is no way to prepare for it from my side. You have to learn while you go through it. Again, I don’t want to be seen to be making excuses, and please don’t put it like that, but that has been the way it is. It has been hugely challenging,” he concluded.