Jacques Nienaber – excellent leading man despite being more comfortable as a role player
Springbok coach Jacques Nienaber is leaving after Rugby World Cup 2023 to join Irish club Leinster, and it’s a big blow to South African rugby.
In the fabulous “Last Dance” documentary about the Chicago Bulls’ run to the 1998 NBA Championship title, their second “three-peat”, Michael Jordan’s teammates John Paxson and Steve Kerr lifted the lid on what made them great players in their own right.
“I knew from early on that I was going to be a role player, and what I did well, complemented Michael Jordan,” Paxson said. Kerr, who is now a highly successful coach, having led the Golden State Warriors to four NBA titles, did the same thing.
Jacques Nienaber is a fantastic rugby coach. That is not in doubt. But he is more comfortable being the role player. Nienaber is happiest with a whistle in his mouth, mud on his boots and running defensive drills on the field with players of all levels.
He is a coach’s coach. Ask him to devise a defensive plan to combat an opponent and he’ll work around the clock. He thrives on making teams and individuals better. In many ways, he is the definition of what it takes to be a great coach.
It’s about sacrifice and passion and love and respect – and the purity of the sport. Nothing is as pure as coaching for coaching’s sake. There is very little actual coaching when you’re the Bok mentor.
So it’s not surprising he is leaving after Rugby World Cup 2023 to join Irish club Leinster. In that environment, coaching will be his main focus again.
Make no mistake, this is a massive loss to South African rugby.
That fact that Leinster, the most powerful club in the northern hemisphere – the Crusaders of the north, if you like – headhunted Nienaber, tells you everything about his value to knowledgeable rugby people. He is a self-taught defensive coaching genius and Leinster is going to be the beneficiary of his brilliance.
While Nienaber’s fit as Springbok head coach has never been entirely comfortable, it doesn’t mean he hasn’t been successful. It just means that he has spent more time on uncomfortable portfolios that do not come naturally to him.
Press conferences, sponsor engagements and meetings about peripheral aspects not central to the actual playing of rugby take time and energy. Time and energy he’d rather pour into coaching.
Head coaches of international rugby teams, especially high-profile teams such as the Springboks, generally have huge personalities and large egos. Think Rassie Erasmus, Jake White, Eddie Jones and Nick Mallett. This is not meant as a slight.
Those men, and others like Alex Ferguson, Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola, are larger than life. They enjoy the limelight and they thrive on confrontation with the media, the opposition and the authorities. It fuels them and deflects from their players. In certain circumstances, it’s highly effective.
They are happy to be the villain if it will benefit their team. They will intentionally create conflict if they believe it will give them an edge. It’s one way of doing the job, but not the only way.
Jacques Nienaber has the least ego of any international coach this writer has come across in 25 years. That’s not to be confused with “not caring” or not being “strong enough” for the job. No one cares more, but Nienaber’s best way of showing his strength is by coaching a player to be better.
More actual coaching
As Bok coach, he’s lucky if he spends 12 weeks a year on the training field. For a man who just wants to be out on the pitch mucking in with players, or poring over clips of opposition and devising plans, that isn’t enough. Nienaber needs more actual rugby in his life and less management.
Rugby should take soccer’s lead and call a head coach a manager. Because that’s what the job description is – someone who manages other people and environments. In the Bok set-up, it’s slightly easier for Nienaber because Erasmus, as director of rugby, still shoulders a lot of external responsibilities.
Even so, Nienaber is no longer the sergeant major drilling troops. He went from non-commissioned officer to general almost overnight and he handled it superbly.
But the demands on someone of his make-up are harder than for someone built and primed for the limelight.
Nienaber will join Leinster after Rugby World Cup 2023, and although it appears he will be a “director of rugby” of sorts, the reality is that he will be coaching every day.
He’ll be coaching Leinster’s top team, but he’ll also be involved in working with the Academy players. That’s his happy place. Turning rocks into diamonds instead of setting Test-calibre diamonds into a pretty ring is more appealing to someone like Nienaber.
Covid meant Nienaber had to navigate the Boks through the most difficult time in history. That added layers of management and planning which wouldn’t normally have been the case.
While results over his tenure have been in line with the Boks’ historic winning ratio of 62%, Nienaber has presided over a Lions series win, a record mauling of the All Blacks and the growth of a squad to the point where there are two world-class players in every position.
Whatever happens at RWC 2023 in France, the foundation for the next man in the post is sturdy.
And unlike most coaches who seek a contract extension before the World Cup, to give themselves some sort of safety net in case of failure, Nienaber has done the opposite. That underlines his lack of ego and is an expression of his commitment to the purity of coaching over the glamour of the Bok job.
Nienaber is also 50 years old and wants other challenges in his career. He’s been in the Bok set-up in various guises for 12 years, nearly four of those as head coach. He could depart as a double World Cup winner. It would be the perfect scenario, although that outcome is a long way from assured.
His “personal reasons” are not really anyone’s business. His children are older. One is in their third year of university and the other is in matric. He loved his stint at Munster and wants to return to Ireland. Leinster is the most progressive and one of the successful clubs in world rugby and there is the inevitable lure of Irish citizenship in the future.
Nienaber has served South African rugby selflessly for a long time and will continue to do so for a few more months yet. There will be an elegant parting of ways instead of an acrimonious fallout, as is so often the case, which is entirely in keeping with his personality.
No fuss, no frills and no drama – just total commitment to his vocation. He is the ultimate role player who’s briefly been the leading man.
He has played both roles wonderfully but it’s almost time for him to take his place among the supporting cast again. And that suits him just fine. DM