Jacques Nienaber would be the first to defer any praise that comes his way, but the magnitude of guiding the Boks to a famous series win over the Lions is a remarkable achievement that must be duly acknowledged, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
A few weeks before the Springboks returned to international action with a warm-up match against Georgia, I managed to catch up with Nienaber for a brief chat.
As we started our interview and I asked the Bok head coach how he was, his answer spoke volumes: “I’m good, busy, really busy. But I just LOVE it,” he stated emphatically with a tone of excitement that was almost tangible.
“For me this is such a big opportunity – I would say a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity – and not just for me but for the players as well,” he continued.
“It’s a unique opportunity to play against the Lions and for me, it’s an unbelievable privilege to do it. It’s such a big occasion. We would have played them anywhere, you know, if it was in the UK or Dubai: we were prepared to pull out all the stops to make this tour happen.
“I’m just unbelievably happy and privileged that it is actually happening, because of the magnitude of the occasion. After the World Cup, this is the second-biggest challenge that anyone will ever have to face.”
At that point, Nienaber couldn’t have known the challenges that lay in store, with a Covid-19 outbreak in the Bok squad forcing the cancellation of the second clash with Georgia and depriving the team of another week of all-important on-field training.
Nienaber himself was forced into isolation and another round of ‘virtual’ coaching, with Rassie Erasmus assuming a more frontline role in his absence.
For those who know Nienaber, it would be easy to picture him pacing up and down his hotel room, desperate to resume a hands-on role again.
On more than one occasion during this Boks-Lions series – and after Nienaber had been able to return to normal duty – he reiterated just how much he just genuinely ‘loves coaching’.
It’s a passion that borders on obsession. Nienaber eats, sleeps and breathes rugby. Analysing and dissecting the game, while working with players and colleagues on devising carefully constructed strategies is a source of pride and joy.
Nienaber is also an incredibly popular figure in the Bok squad, and there is good reason for this. Possessing one of the most astute rugby brains in the game, he has earned the trust of those around him.
Approachable and affable, yes, but also resolutely dedicated to his craft and finding solutions to rugby puzzles that would flummox many others.
Nienaber has never before served as a head coach, and considering he was seen as Erasmus’ right-hand man for so long, it’s perhaps not all that surprising that his achievements haven’t dominated the headlines.
The 48-year-old is about as far removed from an in-your-face figurehead as you can get, which was aptly illustrated when he mentioned on the eve of the Lions tour that he was more nervous for one of his first media conferences than anything else.
Nienaber prefers to do his talking through his actions in the coaching box, video analysis room and on the training field.
As a close-knit unit, the Bok coaching team deserve immense credit for manufacturing a comeback 2-1 series win. But, at the end of the day, the buck stops with the head coach.
Nienaber would have shouldered the responsibility if the Springboks had endured defeat against the Lions, and so it stands to reason that he should be front and centre in receiving due plaudits for winning his first series as a head coach against a supremely well-coached team of players drawn from four leading northern-hemisphere nations.
Add in the context of extraordinarily challenging circumstances, limited preparation as a full squad, and just one solitary warm-up Test, and the magnitude of the achievement comes into stark perspective.
It’s no wonder that Nienaber looked far more relaxed and settled when chatting to media this past Tuesday. A massive weight of expectation and pressure will surely have been lifted from his shoulders.
It is now straight on to the next challenge in the Rugby Championship, but there should first be time to pause and praise Nienaber. He’s earned it.