This is the story of Rassie Erasmus's right-hand man with South Africa
Jacques Nienaber’s journey from physio to Springboks defensive mastermind
Sitting at the back of the press conference, Springboks head coach Rassie Erasmus idly scrolls through his phone while questions are being fired at others at the top table. In the build up to a Rugby World Cup semi-final against Six Nations Grand Slammers Wales, it is understandable that his focus may be elsewhere.
As his assistant coach Jacques Nienaber begins to talk about the pair’s relationship, though, Erasmus cannot help but look up. Then he leans forward, his chin almost touching the chair in front of him.
“We first met each other a long time ago when we were in the army together,” Nianaber begins on the happenstance that led him to Erasmus.
“In the army, you get fairly tight and then we went to university together. Rassie stayed on in the army a little longer – he was much better in the army then I was… He was a very good tactician as you can see!
“Then we met up again when I was a physio and he was the captain of the varsity team. We got involved in rugby there.”
This is the bit where you realise that Nianaber, one of the foremost defensive coaches in the world right now first earnt his spurs in the pro game by helping put broken players back together.
Earlier, the head coach explained that when he was playing he spent a lot of time talking to Nienaber while on the physio bed. What struck him during those times was the clarity of vision and depth of knowledge from the medic. When he first retired from the game, Erasmus made a point of taking Nienaber with him.
“I became a coach as soon as I stopped playing,” Erasmus recalled. “I brought Jacques in as a conditioning coach right away. His passion, knowledge and work ethic around defence was evident even back then. He’s very good with people and in terms of communicating what he wants. He gets the message across brilliantly.”
The pair stuck together. As a coaching ticket, they would run the show at the Free State Cheetahs, the Stormers and Munster. Now they stand side by side, looking at the prospect of a World Cup final, should they vanquish Wales.
Nienaber says he is still a physiotherapist, deep down – his wife is a physio and he is still qualified. They practice together. But while his may seem like a side-entry into coaching, Nienaber also believes that he was lucky to transition into defence coaching at a time when too few specialised.
He is full of praise for Wales’ defensive expert, Shaun Edwards too. The coaches have shared a drink, eaten together. There is a mutual respect, Nianaber says.
Asked why it still works so well with Erasmus, the Boks defence coach adds: “I think we’ve been friends for a long time but, as we always say, whenever there’s a rugby decision or something that needs to be discussed about rugby between the four lines, we can disagree and get angry with each other. But it’s never personal, it’s always to make the team better.
“We’ve got a good relationship in terms of that – being friends on one side but also Rassie is my boss. We have that good relationship, we can have a drink together but also when we have to make decisions about rugby, we don’t have egos in terms of accepting that we’re going to go for this or that route.”
Erasmus will be in charge of South Africa beyond this World Cup, but with the role of director of rugby.
Who steps in to be the next head coach is a matter of intense discussion. But considering the transformation South Africa have made in the last few years under this duo, winning a Rugby Championship and powering to this World Cup semi-final, it would not rock a nation to see this sometime physio land the role.
This piece first featured in Rugby world during the Six Nations.