PEOPLE OF THE YEAR 2023
Sportsperson of the Year: The coaching duo RasNaber
The two-man politburo of ideas did things differently, nurturing the Boks’ never-say-die spirit.
Technically this is an award for two people – Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber – the Springboks’ director of rugby and head coach, respectively.
The pair became almost one entity over their six years together at the Boks. That working relationship, which was unprecedented at this level – a two-man politburo of ideas and innovation – delivered Rugby World Cup 2023 as promised.
Three one-point wins in the knockout stages, 29-28 over France, 16-15 over England and 12-11 over the All Blacks in the final, underpinned the Boks’ never-say-die attitude and composure under pressure. That was honed over six years and perfected in 2023.
From the day RasNaber returned to South Africa and were appointed in coaching roles at the Springboks in 2018, they had one goal, which was to win RWC 2023.
Initially Nienaber was an assistant coach specialising in defence. Erasmus was director of rugby and head coach, although he never actually assumed the title of head coach between 2018 and 2019, when the pair won their first RWC title.
In 2020, Nienaber was given the title of head coach, but in reality little changed. He still did the defence until 28 October 2023 – the day of the World Cup final. There were some fundamental aspects such as Nienaber having to be in the coaches’ box on match day, and being thrust into more media and public relations duty. But the day-to-day nuts and bolts of nurturing a high-performance environment remained largely the same. RasNaber were in charge – two heads being better than one – with a cast of high-quality characters involved in the set-up.
It was a bold prediction back in 2018, after two of the worst years in Springbok history, when the Boks stated their goal was to win RWC 2023.
Then they went and won RWC 2019, so we all asked, what now? Well, nothing really. The goal remained to win RWC 2023. Only this time the stakes were higher.
The Boks were no longer outsiders. They had a target on their back and in turn they had to reset some of their own targets. Suddenly, after the success of 2019, they had a chance to win back-to-back titles and become the first country to win four World Cups.
It refreshed the purpose; it allowed RasNaber to set new goals and identify another way to motivate a settled group of players. This year was the culmination of all the planning, tinkering and building.
Early on, they had a list of 13 criteria defining what they wanted from players and what traits players needed to possess. Most important on that list was character. The character to never stop working, to put the team first, to go further and be better.
RasNaber never feared losing. They never feared approaching the sport, and specifically the job of leading the Springboks, differently. They did fear complacency, entitlement and failure to learn. In a business that is supposed to be results-driven, they were not in it for results’ sake. The outcome was not always the primary goal because they understood that if they perfected the process, results would follow.
Of course, in the RWC playoffs only the result mattered. But, by the time they reached that point, they had nurtured the team to a place where their earlier courage, which had ended in a few defeats, ensured that when it mattered the result took care of itself.
“Coach Rassie [Erasmus] said great things are never achieved in ideal conditions, and this wasn’t ideal conditions for us as a group,” captain Siya Kolisi said after the Boks won the final 12-11 against New Zealand.
“The coaches created an environment for us where we can be with our families no matter where we are. It feels like we are home. There are 15 to 20 kids running around the hotel. It’s one of the greatest things they could have done for us.”
Kolisi added more praise for Erasmus and particularly Nienaber. It was fitting that it came from the inner circle to give us an idea of what RasNaber achieved, not only in 2023, but in six years.
“It hasn’t been an easy journey. The coaching staff have been ridiculous. I have worked with Jacques since I was 17 years old. I couldn’t tackle. When he and Rassie used to come to training, it was full contact. You had to show that you could do this.
“We grew up around him [Nienaber]. He cares about us as people.
“He asks, ‘Are you going to let your daughter down, your son down?’ It became far deeper than just a rugby game.
“Jacques, honestly, it’s been a huge honour for me and a huge privilege … I appreciate you. We love you as a team, not as a coach, but as a person. You’ve taken it to another level. The way you speak to us – it’s not ‘make a big hit, make a tackle’, you talk to me as a person, as a father, a husband, as a son. It goes such a long way, so thank you. We honour you as a team.”
As does the entire country. DM
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.