Jacques Nienaber has been South Africa's head coach since January 2020
Jacques Nienaber’s morning routine was driven by a desire – a need, in his mind – to steal a march on coaching peers that, unlike him, had enjoyed top-level playing careers.
This exhaustive schedule signalled to Jerry Flannery that the future Springboks guru would be a special colleague as the pair began working together at Munster five years ago.
“He would get up at half four and work until six before going for a run with his wife,” says Flannery of Nienaber, who started out as a physiotherapist. “Then he’d start with everyone else in coaches’ meetings at seven or seven-thirty.
“When someone tells you that they’ve got up to work at half four, you often think ‘that’s bull—-’. But Jacques would pull up all the work he was doing, the footage he was chopping up and the analysis he was getting through to find every little cue to help empower the defence.
The Munster coaching team of 2016, from left to right: Jerry Flannery, Felix Jones, Anthony Foley, Rassie Erasmus, Jacques Nienaber
“I thought: ‘Wow, this is different level’. He was so systematic. And the more work he did, the better he could paint a picture of what the opposition was about the better he could simplify [his tactics] so the players could grasp them.”
Such studying behind the scenes brings about Nienaber’s match-day trademark. He often reads opponents’ plays and calls them out before they happen. This was particularly effective from the touchline while he still enacted physio duties alongside the role of defence coach, as recently as Rugby World Cup 2019.
Now, with Rassie Erasmus installed as South Africa’s water-boy, Nienaber scans matches from the stands. A different angle cannot stop him picking up cues.
Was sat about 15 yards from the Boks’ coaching box.
Remember when Conor Murray was setting up for the box-kick, I could hear someone – likely Nienaber – calling down “They’re setting up for the ‘Dragon’.”
Wondered at the time if that referred specifically to Biggar chasing.
— Ben James (@benjames1796) August 2, 2021
Flannery, the former Munster and Ireland hooker, spent last season guiding Harlequins to a thrilling Premiership title triumph. At 42, he is one of the most eloquent communicators in rugby union and has exciting prospects. On the subject of Nienaber, Flannery’s tone does not sway from reverential. And no wonder.
“When I first met Jacques, I was thinking of stopping coaching,” he admits. “I had done two years at Munster and Jacques and Rassie were coming in. Myself and Anthony Foley were very, very tight.
“I thought that Rassie had been parachuted in above Axel [Foley] and that there was just going to be niggle all the time in coaches’ meetings. I told the CEO I was going to stop, and he asked me to give it one more year. I spoke to Axel, who said he’d got on really well with Rassie. Rassie said ‘please, give it a year’.”
Nienaber straps up CJ Stander during a Champions Cup contest against Toulouse
Erasmus, whom Flannery describes as “a rugby genius… a genius full-stop” even organised for him to travel to Cape Town to shadow Pieter de Villiers, then South Africa’s scrum coach. Returning to Ireland, Flannery enjoyed an unforgettable “apprenticeship” over the 2016-17 season.
Another trait that stood out was how Nienaber could package the information he had mined before empathically articulating strategies so that players invested in the overarching game plan – in him, really – wholeheartedly.
He told players not to be concerned by missed tackle statistics. Of greater importance, Nienaber stressed, was exerting pressure. He implored players to “sign your name” on rival ball-runners with dominant hits.
“I don’t know whether I will ever get to Jacques’ level, but I try to work the same way now,” Flannery says. “I often get caught up in thinking I have watched 15 games so I have to pass that knowledge on. That is no good to a player.
“You have to distil that down to something that will make them more confident on the field. When Jacques is coaching, he is like a scientist. He progresses theories and adds in layers. He’s different gravy.”
Extending the academia metaphor, Nienaber himself has conceded that he used the South Africa Under-20 team as tactical “guinea pigs” while overseeing them prior to joining Munster.
Makazole Mapimpi and Siya Kolisi swarm Lions fly-half Dan Biggar during the second Test
“He wants players to bring as much attitude as they can,” Flannery continues. “If you bring truly, truly sprinting line-speed, there is a good chance that you are going to miss tackles. And if the players are worried about missing tackles, they won’t bring that line-speed and the defence doesn’t work.
“Jacques strips that away. He says: ‘Don’t worry about your tackle completion. As long as you try as hard as you can, you’ll be good’. I think South Africa missed three times as many tackles as the Lions in the second Test, but the majority of those will have been 15 metres ahead of the gain-line. When you’re trying to attack against it, it feels like an incessant wave coming against you.”
Flannery is, predictably, precise with his figures. According to Opta, South Africa missed 15 of 136 tackle attempts against the British and Irish Lions during their 27-9 victory in the second Test. Conversely, the Lions only missed five of 112.
South Africa A, the Springboks in all but name, missed 28 during a masterclass in defensive desperation that earned a 17-13 midweek win over the Lions last month. Warren Gatland’s team only missed seven tackles that evening. On their way to World Cup glory, South Africa returned a middling tackle completion rate of 86.9 per cent. Eight teams were tidier. South Africa’s cohesion and conviction were far more valuable than neatness, though.
Jasper Wiese aims to cut down Maro Itoje during the second Test
Credit: Getty Images Europe
Erasmus and Nienaber have known one another since their days on national service, joining forces at the Cheetahs and the Stormers, who conceded a meagre 23 tries over 19 Super Rugby outings in 2012, before Munster. Flannery believes the expansive attacks of the southern hemisphere inspired the aggressive, intuitive defensive system that conquered the world.
“[Jacques] is used to coaching against teams from New Zealand,” he says. “If you are passive in defence against teams that are that skilful and hold the ball for that long, you will be broken eventually. You are better off firing a punch and aiming to force turnovers.
“Players love it, and buy into it. You could say that it’s a South African thing but it’s not. If you speak to any players he coached at Munster, they would say he was the best rugby coach they’d ever had. He was phenomenal.”
Munster lost their second match under Erasmus, going down 24-23 to Cardiff Blues at home. A storied, brutal review session followed. Erasmus led the way.
“Rassie would say: ‘How could you put out such as gutless performance?’” remembers Flannery. “He was questioning people’s sense of self. But you would never get criticised if you tried.”
From there, and despite Foley’s death in October 2016, Munster won 18 of their remaining 20 matches to make the Pro 12 play-offs. They conceded only 34 tries in 22 regular season matches. Since then, the progress of other backroom members reflects the influence of Erasmus and Nienaber.
Aled Walters, Nienaber and Jones celebrate beating Wales in the semi-final of Rugby World Cup 2019
Credit: Getty Images
Conditioner Aled Walters and coach Felix Jones, who compiled a dossier on how England fielded kicks ahead of the World Cup final, were whisked into the Springboks fold by Erasmus and Nienaber. Walters subsequently moved to Leicester Tigers, proving popular and valuable under Steve Borthwick. Jones’ diligence was laid bare in the Chasing the Sun documentary. He remains with South Africa, and has been plotting to beat the Lions.
The tourists’ task in the series-decider this weekend is tougher because of Nienaber, and the steadfast belief his intellect has bred in South Africa’s players.
“Coaching and analysing can be complex,” Flannery finishes. “The skill is to simplify it for the players so they can grasp it and get a really clear understanding of what the implications are. Jacques does that in every aspect of how he coaches. He will know every single detail of his defensive system, down to the minutiae. But he makes it so simple for the players.
“Jacques empowers players to the point that they feel really confident. They think: ‘If I just do what Jacques says, even if I make mistakes, we will win the game.’”
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The remarkable revival of Morne Steyn – the 2009 Lions killer
By Daniel Schofield, in Cape Town
Twelve years on from kicking the decisive penalty in the 2009 series and five years on from his last Test appearance, Lions slayer Morne Steyn is back in the Springbok Test 23.
The choice of the reserve fly-half is probably the most telling difference in how both coaches intend to approach the final quarter of today’s series decider.
Warren Gatland, the Lions head coach, chose to jettison Owen Farrell, the England captain who kicked the penalty that rescued a series draw in New Zealand four years ago, for Finn Russell, who can create something out of nothing – whether that is triumph or disaster.
The Springboks, meanwhile, went the opposite route. Out went the mercurial Elton Jantjies and in came 37-year-old Steyn. As head coach Jacques Nienaber says it is “do or die time” and the Boks wanted their dead-eyed killer there to administer the last rites just as he did in the second Test of the 2009 series.
Back then, Steyn was a raw rookie who had not yet started a match for South Africa. With two minutes to go and the scores tied at 25-25, Ronan O’Gara took Fourie du Preez out in the air on the Springboks 10-metre line.
Most of the Springboks players expected Frans Steyn, who has a monster boot, to take the shot at goal. Before a committee could even form, the other Steyn already had the tee in his hands.
South Africa's players celebrate after Morne Steyn's series-clinching penalty in 2009
Credit: GETTY IMAGES
As Du Preez recalls in an interview with SA Rugby magazine, even his team-mates did not know what to expect as he lined up a 50m kick at goal. “I watched him do it so many times before for the Bulls – and so many times at Loftus Versfeld. But did I know for sure that he would kick it over in that situation? No I didn’t.
“Test rugby is very different to Super Rugby and the pressure is immense. So I stood there, watching Morne approach the tee. As the ball left his foot, I hoped and hoped it would have the distance. When it sailed between the posts, we all celebrated like we had won the World Cup all over again.”
For Lions fans, this must seem like the ending to a horror movie where the chief villain appears to have been dealt with, only to open an eye in the very last scene. Think of this as the sequel, Steyn: the Lion Killer Strikes Again.
It is not just British and Irish supporters who are surprised to see Steyn back in a South Africa shirt. After the 2015 World Cup, Steyn seemed to have played his last game for the Springboks with Handre Pollard and Pat Lambie overtaking him in the fly-half pecking order. However, a poor run of results resulted in him returning briefly to the international set-up, playing his last Test against New Zealand in 2016.
South Africa team to face the British and Irish Lions in the third Test
Like so many Springboks, Steyn topped up his pension in the Top 14 as a model of reliability for Stade Francais. By 2020, he had enough rand in his pocket to sail off into the sunset. Instead he opted to return to the Bulls in Super Rugby for what he initially thought would be a “bit of fun”.
Yet by winning Super Rugby Unlocked and the Currie Cup, he propelled himself firmly back into the Springbok equation, especially once Pollard suffered a serious knee injury.
Heyneke Meyer, his former coach at Stade and South Africa, compares him to Jonny Wilkinson for his work ethic and professionalism. Like Wilkinson, Steyn can be counted on in the big moments, which is the prime reason he will loom large on the sideline on Saturday.
“It’s a valid point to make in my view,” Nienaber said. “One of the big things that went in Morne’s favour is the fact that he has been in big games like this. He understands the pressure. If you take the World Cup final and if you take this game, the pressure is going to be similar. It’s do or die. Morne has been there before and he has done it before in a big game in 2009.”
The Lion killer is ready to strike again.