Coach Jacques Nienaber has likened the Springboks’ wait for Test rugby’s return to ‘a jet standing on the runway without fuel’.
In the latest SA Rugby magazine, Nienaber chatted to CLINTON VAN DER BERG about the unexpected challenges faced since the Boks won the World Cup back in November, while looking ahead to hopes of international action resuming.
The opportunity to finally return to play now looks increasingly likely after Sanzaar confirmed the Rugby Championship is set take place in Australia, in November and December, this year.
Although the Springboks still need to receive final approval to participate due to international travel restrictions, there is cautious optimism this will be provided in the near future.
No Bok coach in history has faced such a peculiar dilemma, but listen to Nienaber for long enough and you realise that the prevailing dread isn’t something that consumes him. He is all energy and keenness, his restless vigour a promising sign for a team anxious to get going amid the pandemic and its attendant terrors.
Nienaber’s world might be rooted in the physical, given his background as a physiotherapist and strength and conditioning coach, but recent months have seen him adopt more abstract, cerebral realities.
He says that being adaptable is important, reflecting on contact, communication and analysis all changing thanks to Covid-19. The familiar get-togethers, the impromptu chats at HQ, the formal white-board meetings are all gone.
‘Now we’re in silos,’ he says wistfully, ‘talking online to one another in Cape Town, Ireland, PE, that sort of thing.’
Innovation now shapes his world as he tries to coach effectively by remote control. There is no rugby and no gym, but he is thrilled by the possibilities.
‘It’s like a jet standing on the runway without fuel,’ he offers as the perfect metaphor. ‘We’re planning so that when we get the green light, we can kick on from there.
‘The world used to be small, we could all travel so easily,’ adds Nienaber. ‘But Covid has shown that it’s not that small. We lost [head of physical performance] Aled Walters because he wanted to be home, in the UK. I think of many family and friends and players who are coming back to South Africa. Their parents are old, some are sickly. The players want to be close by.’
Nienaber hasn’t been able to dive in, but he has enjoyed engaging with local coaches from time to time. His newbie status means he’s little known beyond South Africa, but he’s quite happy to maintain a low profile.
‘In Rassie’s team, I’d be the guy standing quietly at the back. I’d step into the other changeroom for a beer and people wouldn’t know if I was the doctor or physio.
‘In 2018 I was on a World Rugby working group with All Blacks coach Ian Foster, so I know him a little. I’ve worked with most local coaches and they’ve all been phenomenal. There’s a real philosophy of sharing, which I enjoy.’
He and Erasmus, the director of rugby, have already agreed on divisions of responsibility. Says Nienaber: ‘Rassie will be hands-on and I prefer it that way. It’s a role we are both comfortable with. To lose a guy with experience like that would be detrimental.’
*The full version of this article can be found in the latest SA Rugby magazine, now on sale!
Photo: Hannah Peters/Getty Images