Nienaber: Winning Boks can be about so much more

Jacques Nienaber (Gallo)
Jacques Nienaber (Gallo)

Berlin - Even in Germany, the Springboks command attention when they enter a room. 

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Nominated for the Team of the Year award at the 2020 Laureus World Sports Awards in Berlin on Monday night, there are six members of the victorious 2019 World Cup squad attending the lavish event. 

Skipper Siya Kolisi, Francois Louw, Cheslin Kolbe, Faf de Klerk and Schalk Brits are the players here, and heads turned as they entered the Mercedes-Benz head office in Berlin, where the media centre for the awards is stationed. 

While the attention was firmly on Kolisi, as has been the case everywhere he has travelled since November, Jacques Nienaber was quietly making his first major public appearance as the new head coach of the Springboks. 

Nienaber, historically, has shied away from press conferences and has never enjoyed the spotlight, but those days are now over. 

He takes over from long-time friend and colleague Rassie Erasmus, who steps into the role of Director of Rugby on a full-time basis, and inherits a side that is on top of the world. 

One of the architects of the World Cup win, operating as Erasmus' right hand man and defence guru for the last two international seasons, Nienaber's detailed rugby intellect is well documented. 

The Springbok head coach position, however, comes with its own unique challenges and expectations and Nienaber acknowledges that it will take some getting used to. 

"I'm still trying to get my head around it," he told Sport24 on Monday. 

"I was always the guy that wanted to become the best physio that I could be and then the moment I got there, I would like a new challenge.

"It was the same thing with being a defensive coach and assistant coach ... my first thing was to get as good as I could be and then take on a new challenge.

"This is the new challenge ... to try and become a head coach and take a little more responsibility. I'm still fairly new at it and it's still something that I will learn along the way."

Nienaber takes the reins at a time when South African rugby has never been stronger.

They won the World Cup thanks largely to brutal yet clinical defence, an accurate kicking game and a forward pack that became the envy of the world. In maintaining their dominance in the years to come, however, Nienaber and the Boks will have to evolve and find new ways to become the international benchmark. 

"The key thing for us when we get together is to find our rhythm as quickly as possible," he said.

"It took us 20 weeks to deliver a product of getting to a World Cup final, so it will take us some time.

"The moment we get to that level again, we can actually start thinking of evolving our game. To get back to basics and do our fundamentals well again will be our biggest challenge and the quicker we can get to that standard, the quicker we can evolve."

Exactly what that evolution will look like remains to be seen, but Nienaber believes that with the way the game is moving, attacking sides will be given more freedom and space because of changes in officiating. 

With the Bok defence having been their major weapon in 2019, that would force them into a rethink and Nienaber will be leaning on Erasmus and the rest of the backroom staff for advice. 

"We are a very transparent environment as a coaching group. I haven't been in another team where it's been like that," he said.

"It's never been one coach's way of doing it. There has always been somebody responsible for something, but somebody else providing input.

"Everybody is looking for ways to find new space. The referees are looking to provide attacking teams with space, so we will definitely have to adapt to that.

"The biggest changes in where the game is going is the referees, and not in a bad way. They are going to enhance certain aspects (attack) and that provides a bit of a different game."

The Boks are next in action when they host Scotland twice and Georgia once in June in what will be their first outing since the World Cup. 

They will be expected to win those matches relatively comfortably, but Nienaber will then look towards the 2020 Rugby Championship while the British & Irish Lions tour in 2021 is also a massive series. 

But while winning will always be a priority for Nienaber's Boks, he believes that this Springbok side is about so much more. 

"If you look at it purely from a results point of view, we've won the World Cup and yes, we can with another one and, yes, we can stay No 1," he said. 

"But the bigger challenge is that we've earned a platform as a team where we can try and become something bigger, if you don't look at the results.

"We can really try and inspire and bring about change.

"We don't know exactly what we can change yet because this group has never been in this position, so I don't think even we know what lies ahead, but it's about being ready for the opportunity.

"But you can't inspire without the results. We are No 1 and we must try and stay No 1, and by doing that it will give us a unique opportunity to maybe change something.

"The moment the results go, that is a pie in the sky."

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