Sport

FINDING TRUE NORTH

Nienaber has put RWC victory and Boks behind him as he looks to the future

Nienaber has put RWC victory and Boks behind him as he looks to the future
Jacques Nienaber's decision to quit the Boks, which he made months before the triumph in France, was purely personal. (Photo: Alex Livesey / Getty Images)

Former Springbok coach Jacques Nienaber is looking forwards and not backwards as Leinster prepare for the new Champions Cup campaign this weekend.

It might only be five weeks since the Springboks, under coach Jacques Nienaber, won Rugby World Cup 2023, but the mentor has moved on.

Nienaber attended his first media briefing as a “senior coach” at Irish club Leinster this week, and avoided dwelling on the past – even a glorious past as recent as 40 days ago when the Boks beat the All Blacks 12-11 to win their fourth World Cup – to focus on the future.

“No, it’s gone. It’s water under the bridge,” Nienaber said in reference to his time with the Boks, which yielded two World Cup titles, a Rugby Championship and a British & Irish Lions series win.

“The past is the past and the future… You can’t change that. One day when you’re older maybe you’ll enjoy the memories, but it’s done.”

To South African ears it sounds extremely cold and dismissive of his and the Boks’ recent achievements, but Nienaber has always been forward thinking.

There is a paradox because as one of the most astute analysts in the game, he has to study hours of previous game footage. So, in a way, he does look back, but only for information and to gain an edge in the future. He doesn’t look back for sentimental reasons – at least not at this stage in life.

Nienaber

Bok captain Siya Kolisi and coach Jacques Nienaber on the Rugby World Cup 2023 Springbok Trophy Tour in Pretoria on 2 November 2023. (Photo: Christiaan Kotze / Gallo Images)

Missing family

For Nienaber, the decision to quit the Boks, which he made months before the triumph in France, was purely a personal one. His family were becoming strangers in a way, and he was missing out on so many of life’s small but significant moments.

Watching his daughter play netball, or spending quality time with his varsity-going son. Even his regular dinner nights out with his wife Elmarie were becoming irregular. Something had to change.

I’m going to be challenged as a coach tremendously. There’s going to be big expectations, but at least I have some family time as well.

“I really, honestly thought I would lose my family if I kept on battling away at international rugby. I felt I needed a bit of a break from that,” Nienaber explained this week.

“I just felt I had lost a lot of time with my family. That’s why the decision was made in January/February. My wife said, ‘listen, I don’t think we can do another four years of this’. The kids said, ‘Dad, we need you at home’.

“That’s why, when the opportunity came up again with Leinster, I was nervous because I didn’t want to lose that cutting edge, being challenged. I didn’t want to lose that because I feel that makes you a good coach.

“And that’s why this job for me was a perfect fit. I mean, I’m going to be challenged as a coach tremendously. There’s going to be big expectations, but at least I have some family time as well.”

The Boks spent about six months in camp this year and only slightly less in the preceding five years Nienaber was in the set-up.

When Nienaber had decided he wanted out, he had to have the difficult conversation with director of rugby and close friend Rassie Erasmus. He also had to let the hierarchy at the South African Rugby Union (Saru) know.

In a World Cup year, the tendency is to keep disruptions to a minimum and put everything on hold until after the event. But in keeping with their innovative on-field approach, RasNaber confronted the situation head-on, shared it with the world, which immediately allowed Saru to control the narrative.

“They (Saru and Erasmus) were happy with it. They gave me their blessing and then, when the opportunity came up, we announced it as quickly as possible because it was never that I didn’t want to work in South Africa anymore.

“There were other offers from other internationals. It wasn’t for me to change, or to move, or to come north. It wasn’t anything like that. It was just that I needed to get away from international rugby. That was the reason.”

At Leinster he will be busy, but most evenings will be at home, and there might be time to watch his grown-up children play sport. Away games are seldom more than a night away.

On the rugby front he will be challenged – the demands at Leinster are high – but for a man who has headed one of the biggest teams in the sport, it should be comfortably manageable.

Cheslin Kolbe, Eben Etzbeth, Siya Kolisi and Jacques Nienaber at OR Tambo International Airport on 31 October 2023 after winning their fourth Rugby World Cup. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)

No silver bullet

Leinster have lost four big knockout games in the past two seasons, by the slimmest of margins. The Boks won three knockout games at RWC 2023 by a combined three points. Leinster lost those four matches by a combined six points. Does Nienaber have the secret ingredient for Leinster to win these tight games?

“Sometimes you just need a little bit of luck,” Nienaber said. 

You must be in the fight until the end and then you hope you nail a big moment, and you hope they don’t.

“Sometimes you just need a big play, a charge-down in a quarterfinal from Cheslin Kolbe, and you win the game by a point. Sometimes it goes your way and sometimes not, and I know that’s not what people want to hear, but I mean, that is the reality.

“Sometimes you’re one foot away. Maybe a pass sticks and you score, and you win and nobody will ask questions. But sometimes you knock the ball and it just didn’t go your way. You lose and everybody will ask questions.

“The thing is, in big games, it’s going to be that tight and you must try and play the big points well, if I can put it like that. Hopefully I can add value to that, but there is no silver bullet.

“There’s no ‘Listen guys, if you did this, X, Y, and Z, you will win big games’. You must be in the fight until the end and then you hope you nail a big moment, and you hope they don’t.”

If anyone knows about nailing the big moments, it’s Nienaber. And he also understands that the expectations at Leinster are huge.

Read more in Daily Maverick: The RasNaber Springbok era was defined by many things, but above all else it was defined by courage

This weekend Leinster begin their European Champions Cup campaign away to defending champions La Rochelle, who beat the Irish giants in this year’s final by a point.

“When you think of this group, they’re used to (Ireland coach) Andy Farrell and the international environment,” Nienaber said.

“So, that’s what I expected when I took the job, and that’s why I wanted to take the job. It’s not an international environment, but it is an environment that will be as challenging as an international environment. That’s what I expected and that’s what I’m getting.

“I don’t think mediocrity is something they will endure, so the product I have to deliver as a coach should not be mediocre. Yes, it doesn’t mean there won’t be failures, but you must be well-prepared as much as you can in the timeframe that you have available.” DM

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