EXCLUSIVE: Ex-Stormers, Lions and Saints scrumhalf Nic Groom chats to Sport24

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Nic Groom in action for the Lions against the Sharks in 2019. (Photo by Steve Haag/Gallo Images)
Nic Groom in action for the Lions against the Sharks in 2019. (Photo by Steve Haag/Gallo Images)
  • The former Stormers and Lions scrumhalf talks about returning to live in the Mother City and whether WP could entice him with a playing contract.
  • The ex-Northampton Saint, who played for the club for three seasons, offers his views on how South African sides can hold onto their top talent.
  • The Ikey Tigers consultant also unpacks missing out on Springbok selection in 2016 and why his career is "by no means a failure for not getting there".

Sport24 asked: How are you enjoying being back in Cape Town?

Nic Groom: It’s great to be back in Cape Town having last played in Europe with London Irish in 2021. As a young family, we decided to return home. I’m currently assisting the Ikey Tigers and am involved with player improvement and skills development. I do a lot of work in terms of one-on-ones with players and small groups, looking at areas in which they want to improve. We sit down and figure out how we can track their improvement. It’s very tough to sometimes have an eye on the long-term because with games coming thick and fast, you’re more focused on the short to medium term. A lot of what I do with the team is measured in terms of repeat actions. Improvement is a multi-layered area but essentially what we want to see under pressure situations in games is skills executed at a higher level than what they previously were. Statistics can measure that to some degree but much of my work stems from watching clips taken from training and comparing how players have evolved over time.

Sport24 asked: Would you still entertain a playing offer from WP?

Nic Groom: I would definitely consider it and think I could add a lot of value to the place. I chat to Dobbo (John Dobson) every now and then and my conversations with him are extremely upfront. He knows where I’m at and what I’m about. He’s aware that I’ve got no interest in going anywhere else and, if a playing opportunity doesn’t come up, I’ll continue to move on with the next chapter of my life which excites me…. I believe the union has made good moves in bringing back seasoned pros such as Deon Fourie, Juan de Jongh and Brok Harris. There is a level of maturity they bring to the game and it bridges a gap. As a union, Western Province has changed radically over the last three years in terms of player turnover and the intellectual property that has gone out the door for whatever reason, so bringing back old hands to complement the younger players has been good. I’m very wary of being critical of the team I played for because I know the challenges the players and coaches face. With all the off-field drama that unfolded, it may have served to galvanise the team in a way. (The Stormers are the best placed South African franchise in the United Rugby Championship). With so much stuff detracting from their attention, it must be an incredibly tough job. From my time as a Western Province/Stormers player, there isn’t a place quite like it where you experience that level of boardroom attention. It’s something that most other clubs don’t ever really deal with and as a player you just don’t feel that pressure elsewhere. For a long time, Province have had a lot of things to worry about off-field. I don’t think you can fully understand what is going on from the outside. It’s a pity because there is off the field stuff that’s dragged on and I feel for the players and coaches. And never mind trying to get a team motivated and ready to play, which is a tough ask at the best of times.

Sport24 asked: How would you assess the Springboks’ 2021 season?

Nic Groom: One thing I will say about the Springboks is that they have always got a chance. The current team has a gritty edge to them that ensures that they will never be completely out of a game. Had they played France or Ireland on their end-of-year tour, they definitely would have stood a chance of beating them. The margins are so small at that level. Of the five games they lost in 2021, I don’t think anyone can say the Springboks were completely out of it. There are a lot of variables involved in a sport that is quite complicated at the best of times. You can play badly and win and play well and lose. The way you create your environment and approach to getting the best out of players is paramount to you having a chance of success. Often in rugby there is an illusion of control you have over some of the games. There are certain things you can hammer down on and be in control of but for the rest you need to trust your players, structures and systems which I believe the Boks do well.

Sport24 asked: Have the Boks become over-reliant on a kicking game?

Nic Groom: Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber are some of the most analytical people in the game I’ve ever met. They are in the business of winning games and there is a fine balance between what is going to give you the best chance of winning games and what is entertaining. I think the Boks have actually struck that balance quite well because the reality is that there is a plan and strategy in place. And believe it or not, said strategy is highly trained, worked on and developed by everyone within the whole organisation. There’s nothing that the Springboks do that hasn’t been run through all the decision-makers. Whether or not they are unconventional or paint a picture of a team that lacks ambition and imagination is irrelevant. If you zoom out of professional sports, you are not really going to have a job if you entertain but you will have one if you win games. I think finding the balance is a fine line. The majority of the time Nienaber, Erasmus and the whole Bok setup have used that to their advantage and have done a very good job. I don’t think anyone can deny that.

Sport24 asked: How do we keep more top players in South Africa?

Nic Groom: You have to offer them things money can’t buy. It’s about players finding a place where they belong and an environment in which they can flourish. They need to feel like they are part of something that is bigger than themselves. The Sharks, for example, are creating that culture and have started their own player welfare programme. When that is the case, then the only thing players have to worry about is training hard and performing to the best of their abilities. The team environments I probably most enjoyed were in my last few years at the Stormers as well as with Northampton Saints. That said, things at Northampton ended really bizarrely and quite quickly for me. All the coaches got fired and a new chairman and CEO came in. I was coming off contract at possibly the worst of times. I had plans in place with the previous director about extending my stay there and thought I was going to retire at Northampton. It got to a stage where they couldn’t give me an answer after months of back and forth and eventually I said, “I’ve got to go, otherwise I won’t be able to play anywhere else.” I came to an agreement to join the Lions earlier than originally planned to play in Super Rugby. I signed a contract on the Saturday and arrived on the Wednesday. I loved my time at the Lions. It may have been short-lived but was so enjoyable.

Sport24 asked: Any regrets having never played for the Boks?

Nic Groom: When I made the 31-man Springbok squad in 2016 for the incoming tour against Ireland, it was definitely closest I ever came to representing the Boks. It was an incredible honour to be involved in the camp and officially named in the squad. At the time, I was playing for the Lions and had some conversations with Swys de Bruin, who was later involved with the Springboks, about my chances. However, I broke my hand and that was possibly my last chance of having any sort of shot at national selection. I left straight after that year’s November tour to go to Northampton and I’d like to think that I would have been capped if foreign players with less than 30 caps were allowed to be selected. One or two guys that went on that tour, who ended up playing a game, were behind me in the pecking order. Sometimes I think if I stayed I might have had my chance but that is not something I really dwell on. I’m at peace with it and I don’t think my career will be defined by whether or not I played for the Boks. It would have been a huge honour to play for my country but my career was by no means a failure because I didn’t get there. I had an incredible career and am so chuffed how it unfolded. And in many ways, not being a Springbok opened a few doors to me abroad because in terms of overseas player representation if you’re an international player you fall into a certain quota bracket that the clubs need to be aware of.

Previous interviews:

Dane van Niekerk

Dave Nosworthy

Swys de Bruin

Brett Schultz

Percy Montgomery

Alan Solomons

Josh Strauss

Mouritz Botha

David Denton

Warren Brosnihan

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