The appointment of Jacques Nienaber is a victory for a system that will face significant challenges in the short and long term, writes JON CARDINELLI.
The Boks know what it takes to climb Everest. In 2019, they won the Rugby Championship as well as the World Cup and finished the season at the top of the World Rugby rankings.
Can they live in that rarefied atmosphere? Can they embrace the unique pressures associated with that position and go on to become one of the all-time great teams?
Nienaber – the man chosen to succeed Rassie Erasmus as head coach – put these questions to the Bok players in a recent meeting. 2019 was one of SA Rugby’s greatest years in isolation. If the powers that be get things right in the next four, however, the best may be yet to come.
The Boks have never successfully defended a Tri-Nations or Rugby Championship title before. They will have the opportunity to do so later this year.
The British & Irish Lions will tour South Africa in 2021 and the World Cup in France will follow in 2023. The current group – which comprises most of the players and coaches who won the World Cup in Japan – shouldn’t want for motivation.
For once SA Rugby has got it right with their coaching appointments in the wake of a successful World Cup campaign. It still rankles that Jake White and his team were not retained after the triumph in 2007.
Nienaber – who has worked closely with Erasmus at the Cheetahs, Stormers, Munster and Boks over a period of 15 years – will ensure that the Boks build on what they achieved in Japan rather than start from scratch. It may take some time for Nienaber – and one or two newcomers – to adjust in their new roles, but the man at the helm should have a good idea of what to expect and what each individual can do.
Availability of key personnel, of course, will represent a significant challenge in the coming years. South Africa and every other nation enjoyed unlimited access to their players in the period leading up to the 2019 World Cup and at the tournament itself. Players based abroad in 2020, however, will only be available to the Boks in the World Rugby-sanctioned international windows.
As many as 15 World Cup winners are currently playing their club rugby in Europe and Japan. The Boks won’t have an extended opportunity to bond and gel as a group before big Tests and tournaments, and so we may well see Nienaber juggling his squad – much like Erasmus did in 2019 – and picking teams according to availability and the situation.
Transformation should continue to be a priority. The Boks succeeded in this department last year if one considers how many players of colour stood upon the winners podium at the World Cup. Most of the franchises have made progress in this department since 2015, but there is room for improvement across the board.
A large number of the World Cup winners are young enough to feature at the next tournament in 2023. There are a lot of youngsters coming through at Vodacom Super Rugby level and it wouldn’t surprise to see Nienaber blooding a few against Scotland and Georgia this July with a view to the future.
Again, it’s a unique situation in that a new Bok coach will have the freedom to think beyond the first game or series. While we would expect the Boks to win against Scotland and Georgia, Nienaber and company should be more ambitious in terms of using those Tests to evaluate and prepare for the greater challenges to come in the Rugby Championship.
It’s hard to believe how far the Boks have come over the past two or three seasons and how the structures have evolved to improve the chances of continuity and progress. The Boks were battling to put together a competitive 23 in 2017, and were a laughing stock in 2016 after sustaining a series of record-breaking defeats.
Consider how much has changed. The Boks have won everything there is to win over the past 12 months, yet look set to embark on an ambitious journey over the next four years. These are exciting times.
While it would be naive to state that there won’t be a bump or two in the road, it’s good to know that the Boks – with Nienaber in the driving seat – will keep heading in the right direction.
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