Jacques Nienaber is about to go into his first assignment as head coach of the Springboks and he believes his initial career as a physiotherapist is going to be advantageous as he negotiates the slings and arrows of misfortune that inevitably go with the most high-pressured job in South African rugby.
Nienaber studied physiotherapy at the University of the Free State, where he first hooked up with Rassie Erasmus. He had moved into the strength and conditioning role with the Free State Cheetahs by the time Erasmus went from player to coach in 2005, and he then became one of the most successful defence coaches in the country when he moved with the now director of rugby to Cape Town in 2008.
“I didn’t even play for my school 1st team; in fact I played for the 7ths at Grey College, but I love the game,” Nienaber said on Wednesday.
“My pathway to here was through being a physio. That involves what we call ‘clinical reasoning’, where you trial some treatment, then you assess and see how it goes. If it doesn’t work, you don’t sulk, you just get on to the next thing. My attitude is that you at least then know what doesn’t work.
“That attitude will help as Springbok coach because there are certain things you cannot change. You can’t control destiny, things like injuries and cards are going to happen, but we’ll give it a helluva go.
“We know discipline will be massive in the Lions series and we’ll be concentrating on accuracy in the fundamentals – tackles and breakdowns, make sure we execute those legally.”
While Erasmus and Nienaber won the World Cup as much through their cerebral approach as the tremendous physicality the Springboks brought on the field, the probable loss of Duane Vermeulen and the possible absence of RG Snyman and Damian de Allende will be big blows to their efforts to overpower the British and Irish Lions.
Staying true to his “no sulking” philosophy, Neinaber tried to be optimistic though on Wednesday.
“The most important thing is that Damian and RG’s families are fine, too, after the well-documented fire pit incident,” he said.
“And Jesse Kriel cheered me up about Duane today when he sat in front of me on the plane and told me he had a similar injury just before the 2019 World Cup and he made a quick recovery. So when I phoned Duane I reminded him about Jesse and he said he remembered he got back in time for the World Cup.
“Accidents and injuries happen, but we can’t control them and both those incidents could have been worse. Of course they’re not ideal and I would love the full squad to be training together.
“It’s just the Japan-based players training at the moment, six of them, but whatever we’re doing must be meaningful, and we’re doing a lot of skill-based work.”