Cape Town - Life takes you on some strange twists and turns, but little did a young Jacques Nienaber know, back in 1991, when he bumped into the room-mate of a friend, it would shape his life and career forever.
According to the supersport.com website, Nienaber was appointed Springbok coach last Friday, succeeding his long-time mate Rassie Erasmus, although the two will still work together to lead the world champions in a tougher challenge than winning the Webb Ellis Cup - to stay as the world’s top rugby team.
Nienaber was stationed at 1SDB in Bloemfontein, 1 Special Battalion, when forced into the army through conscription. He admits he wanted to study to be a physiotherapist, “but there was no way my grades allowed it”.
“There were no gap years back then,” he laughs, “and my parents couldn’t support me, so the army it was.”
At the Bloemfontein Tempe base, he met a young rugby player from Despatch, the same rugby player who would later become a Springbok, win a Currie Cup as player and coach, and lead the Springboks to Rugby World Cup glory.
Erasmus was stationed in the Panzer battalion at the same airforce base, and on meeting the two struck up a friendship that would last 20 years and shape their futures. After his year of conscription was up, Nienaber returned to studying at nearby Kovsies (University of the Free State) but Erasmus stayed on in the army.
“He was tactically a genius and he enjoyed it, so he stayed on, it suited him,” Nienaber says.
The two would get together at Nienaber’s student house and share a few beers as the friendship grew. Almost three decades later, Erasmus has entrusted his lieutenant, his trusted friend, with the team he holds so dear to his heart - the Springboks.
While most South Africans are used to a coaching team that comes with a background and pedigree, Nienaber doesn’t fit that bill at all. In fact, he has not been a head coach before, so why change the system now?
Well, precisely because the past system has seen the Springboks get it right every 12 years and lurch from coaching appointment to coaching appointment every time. Erasmus is fiercely loyal, and Nienaber has been at his side for 25 years in one or other team management and coaching structure. If there is anyone he trusts with his life, it is Nienaber.
Still, as SA Rugby president Mark Alexander put it so succinctly last Friday at the announcement: “In the past we appointed a coach, and he came in with his people and changed the system. We threw out the system and started a new one. And every four years this happened.
“We are now here to seek continuity, to make sure that the same systems are built on and get better.”
Those familiar with English football will know the scenario of a manager of a side who fronts the media while the coaches continue in the background. Nienaber’s appointment is a similar option, only the other way around.
Erasmus has stepped back to continue in his role as director of rugby, to focus more on the strategic long-term health of SA rugby, to ensure the pipeline into the Springbok system is healthy.
But come Test season there will be no other place than alongside Nienaber that you will find the coach. They will be working together, as they have in the past few years in the Bok team. The only real difference is Nienaber will be the public face, and have more responsibility.
In essence, the same systems, and the same strategies and thinking, will take the Boks forward. The pressure is just a bit more off Erasmus.
But back to the partnership. When Erasmus was playing for Shimlas, and then later the Cheetahs, Nienaber had progressed to being both sides’ physiotherapist for the season. When Erasmus moved into coaching, Nienaber followed him, first at Free State and then at Western Province.
It was clear the two were a duo that was going to last a long time. But as much as they are joined at the hip, Nienaber is his own man. While many may not know him as well as they would like, he has been in the backroom for a long time. He went from physio to strength and conditioning coach, and from there to defence coach, in a number of years.
With a single-mindedness and steely determination that is just as apparent in Erasmus, Nienaber excelled in every role. His handling of the players behind the scenes is testament to this. A popular choice in every side he has been involved with, he crafted the defensive system that made Western Province and the Stormers so difficult to beat when Erasmus was there, and eventually a defence that suffocated opposition so efficiently that the Boks won the world cup in style.
But behind that determination has been a desire to work in the shadows. Nienaber laughs about it now, but the biggest fear when he worked with the 2011 Rugby World Cup Springbok team, was that media officer Andy Colquhoun would subject him to media interviews.
“I asked not to go in front of the media,” he says, “I was totally out of my comfort-zone. Now I realise it is something I have to do, to help take the next step in my growth as a person and a coach.”
Behind the scenes he worked with Erasmus and slowly built up a reputation of a hard-working, meticulous coach who put in the long hours and accommodated players to make sure he always had the team’s best interests at heart.
Erasmus and Nienaber left for Munster in Ireland for two seasons, and the new Bok coach realised he would need to break the mould if he was to do his job with the same effectiveness.
“It was different in Europe. In South Africa you can break the ice with a joke, you know the rugby culture, you know what works. But it was very different in Ireland. The way they communicate information in a team environment and their culture is very different. I needed to find a different way of getting my message across. It was an immense challenge for me at first.
“In South Africa, the players come from backgrounds of a bit of hardship. They like the attrition of the battle. But in Ireland the skills were more of a factor, they focused more on the tactics and it was a challenge. I learnt a lot from them, and as much as they learnt from me, I learnt from them.”
It may surprise some to know that Nienaber, although he attended Grey College in Bloemfontein, was not a top rugby player. At 63kg he played “for the seventh team”, and was a wily loose forward in his day. But a keen lover of the sport, it was this passion that led him into a life of rugby.
“I know people may see it as a strange pathway to coaching, but to me the pathway is more about work ethic, passion for the game and loving every moment of what you do. Every coach has a different story, but the constant factor is working hard and having passion for what you do,” he says.
Nienaber is married to Elmarie, who is also a physiotherapist and has her own practice, while his two children Carlo and Lila are still at school in Stellenbosch.
But given the pressures of the job, is he ready for the poisoned chalice that has claimed so many top coaches in the past few decades?
“I think I’m probably a bit naïve and probably don’t quite understand what is lying ahead in terms of pressure. The pressure will come and things can change in a moment. If you lose a game the pressure will be on you.
“Will I be able to handle it? I wouldn’t have taken the job if I didn’t think I could. But it is part of my development and I will need to manage it properly.”
With Erasmus at his side, Nienaber is in safe hands. And while he may not be a household name, he has been around enough Springbok Test matches to know what to do and what not to do.
And if continuity is what SA Rugby needs right now, Erasmus and Nienaber’s combination should be trusted to take them forward.