Bok brain drain will be felt in 2024 despite succession planning

Bok brain drain will be felt in 2024 despite succession planning
Springbok coach Jacques Nienaber. (Photo: David Rogers / Getty Images)

Jacques Nienaber’s decision to vacate the role of Springbok head coach after Rugby World Cup 2023 does raise some questions over the future structure and approach to the next management group.

Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber have been transparent about their intentions for the Springboks over the past six years. When the formidable coaching duo returned from Ireland in 2018 to take control of the national side, they prioritised results, transformation and squad development.

They walked the talk when they steered the most transformed Bok side in history to monumental triumphs at the 2019 World Cup and in the 2021 British & Irish Lions series. They monitored players at home and abroad to ensure the very best remained in the Bok mix, and pushed forward with plans to blood youngsters with an eye to the future.

Laying the platform

Ahead of the tour to Europe last November, Daily Maverick asked Nienaber if he planned to stay on beyond the 2023 World Cup in order to reap the benefits of that long-term plan. While he wasn’t prepared to give a straight answer at that point, he reiterated his commitment to building a team for the next four-year cycle – regardless of his own future with Boks.

South Africa director of rugby Rassie Erasmus is still contracted to 2025 and could oversee a seamless coaching transition if he stays on. But he could choose to step away after RWC 2023. (Photo: Clement Mahoudeau / Gallo Images / Getty Images)

Fast forward to the present, where Nienaber has announced that he will leave the Boks after the 2023 World Cup to take up a post with Irish giants Leinster.

That announcement is unlikely to disrupt the team in the lead-up to the global tournament in France. What’s more, the handover should be seamless. Just as Nienaber was promoted from within the coaching structures in 2020, another assistant coach – Mzwandile Stick appears to be the favourite – may graduate to the top job in 2024.

This succession plan has been in place for some time, and will ensure that the Boks don’t have to start from scratch. The next set of players and coaches should build on the platform laid by Erasmus and Nienaber over the past six years. The potential for growth is tremendous, and with the right guidance, the class of 2027 could well surpass their predecessors.

Filling the voids

However, there’s no getting around the fact that the Boks and South African rugby will lose a significant chunk of intellectual property at the end of 2023.

As far as Nienaber’s departure is concerned, South Africa’s loss will be Leinster’s gain – as well as Ireland’s, given the close links between the Dublin-based club and the national side. Nienaber is acknowledged as the best defence coach in the business, and it’s no secret that the Bok game plan is essentially built on his defensive system. It won’t be easy to find another defence coach with Nienaber’s blend of experience, technical knowledge and communication skills.

Another key member of the backroom staff will move on after the 2023 World Cup. According to the other Bok coaches and players, Felix Jones has a phenomenal eye for detail, and has added a lot of value to the team over the past four years. He will be missed when he joins England’s coaching team after the World Cup.

Bok assistant coach Mzwandile Stick is likely to succeed Jacques Nienaber as head coach in 2024 if the policy of promotion from within is maintained. (Photo: Steve Haag / Gallo Images / Getty Images)

Further restructuring of the coaching team will be required if an assistant coach such as Stick or Deon Davids replaces Nienaber at the helm. Stick’s role in the set-up over the past six years has been unique and wide-ranging, covering off-the-ball aspects, return to play and aerial skills. Another coach or two may be required to cover that workload.

The Erasmus predicament

The biggest question in the wake of the Nienaber announcement is whether Erasmus – the architect of the big South African rebuild in 2018 – will remain as director of rugby, and as a hands-on member of the Bok coaching staff. Erasmus has already spoken of his desire for a new challenge, and it won’t come as a surprise if he decides to move on in 2024.

Ageing members of the leadership group such as Duane Vermeulen, Frans Steyn and Willie le Roux could follow Kolisi’s lead and hang up their Test boots.

Erasmus and Nienaber have operated on the same coaching staff for nearly 20 years – serving at the Cheetahs, Stormers and Munster before joining the Boks. When they committed to SA Rugby, they did so as a package. Erasmus’s contract officially expires in 2025, but a clause in this document linking him to Nienaber may allow him to follow his counterpart out the Bok door sooner than expected.

That would present a gargantuan problem for South African rugby. There aren’t many coaches in the world that boast Erasmus’s knowledge and management skills, and fewer yet with the appetite to tackle the unique challenges of running the game in this country.

As things stand, there is no obvious replacement for this particular director of rugby position, and all at SA Rugby should hope that Erasmus remains committed to his post for the foreseeable future.

New captain and senior core

What we know for certain is that 2024 will mark a new era for the Boks, in that there will be a new coach and captain working in tandem, as well as a new core of senior players.

Current skipper Siya Kolisi will join Racing 92 after the 2023 World Cup and has signalled his intention to retire from international rugby after the tournament in France. Ageing members of the leadership group such as Duane Vermeulen, Frans Steyn and Willie le Roux could follow Kolisi’s lead and hang up their Test boots. Vermeulen and Le Roux have operated as Kolisi’s lieutenants on the field for the better part of six years and will be missed as much as the captain himself.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Boks are comfortable with a favourites tag at RWC 2023 as fixtures finalised

A number of seasoned players in their early thirties should be available for the initial stages of the next four-year cycle – if not the entire period. This group should include players who have already led the Boks, such as Eben Etzebeth, Pieter-Steph du Toit and Handré Pollard, as well as veterans of the calibre of Faf de Klerk, Steven Kitshoff, Vincent Koch and Frans Malherbe. It would be unwise to bank on all of those players surviving to the 2027 World Cup in Australia, though.

Teenage wing Canan Moodie (centre), celebrating after scoring a try on Test debut against Australia, is one of the future stars that have become Test players in the Erasmus/Nienaber era. (Photo: Matt King / Getty Images)

But again, Erasmus and Nienaber deserve credit for developing a large group of young players with the potential to play at the next two World Cups – and possibly even at the subsequent tournament in 2031.

While the Boks will miss Kolisi, Vermeulen and others, they will have a strong core of players who will be entering their prime in the next four-year cycle – namely Lukhanyo Am, Jaden Hendrikse, Malcolm Marx, Canan Moodie, Ox Nché, RG Snyman, Jasper Wiese and Damian Willemse.

Others who have been recently introduced to the Bok environment – such as Phepsi Buthelezi, Suleiman Hartzenberg, Elrigh Louw, Salmaan Moerat, Ruan Nortje and Evan Roos – will be given more responsibility during this period.

The key, of course, will be the management of those new players. While a lot of important structures have been implemented over the past six years, the success of the Boks after 2023 will hinge on the balance of the new coaching team, and ultimately its ability to get the best out of the playing group. DM


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