'Irish people are really good people' - Erasmus and Nienaber drive the Boks on

The South Africa coaching duo have been close friends since the early 1990s.

RASSIE ERASMUS AND Jacques Nienaber, now a seemingly inseparable coaching duo, first met in the South African Army in the early 1990s.

They bonded over the hard work of military training and learning, while their shared love of rugby naturally led to a few in-depth conversations.

“In the army, you get fairly tight,” is how Nienaber puts it now, days away from their Springboks team taking on Wales in the World Cup semi-finals.

Rassie Erasmus is the head coach, as well as the director of rugby for the South African Rugby Union, while Nienaber is his trusted lieutenant, the man who gets much of the tactical and technical work done to prepare the team.

rassie-erasmus-with-jacques-nienaber Erasmus and Nienaber during their time at Munster. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

While mainly focused on defence, the highly-intelligent Nienaber influences everything the Boks do. Those who worked with him in Munster were left stunned at the level of knowledge and technical detail Nienaber possessed.

While Nienaber is the rugby nerd, Erasmus is the boss of the operation – planning, plotting and overseeing everything with a combination of an iron fist and an arm around the shoulder, depending on what players need.

Together, Erasmus and Nienaber – who both turned 47 this month – have formed a brilliant tandem act, all of it starting away from rugby with the friendship they built in the army before Nienaber moved on to study Science at the Free State University.

“Rassie stayed on in the army a little longer, he was much better in the army then I was,” explains Nienaber. “He was a very good tactician, as you can see.”

Nienaber started working as a physio for the university’s rugby club and when Erasmus then moved to Free State to play, they once again came into contact. Nienaber then moved to the Cheetahs set-up as a physio and, like clockwork, Erasmus ended up captaining the franchise in the late 1990s.

Erasmus was a highly-respected Springbok back row at that stage but he moved into coaching and, after initially bringing his friend into a strength and conditioning role, he convinced Nienaber to make the leap and become a defence coach at Western Province and the Stormers.

“Back when he was a physio, obviously when you’re a player and you’re lying on the bed [getting treatment], you have a lot of rugby discussions because you’re there for 45 minutes,” says Erasmus of how he knew Nienaber could be a good coach.

“Then when I became the coach, right after I stopped playing in 2004, I actually got him as the conditioning coach and he stopped being the physiotherapist.

jacques-nienaber Nienaber is a deep thinker on the game. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“From there his passion has always been defence and we slowly got him in to do the defence work and I think the passion, the knowledge and the work ethic – if you have those three things, you’ve got a good chance of being successful.

“The way he works with people and with players, he’s got a very good understanding of players, and he accepts any type of player. The way he gets his message across is fantastic, so I just think he was cut out to be a good coach.”

Nienaber had no professional playing background, having featured in the back row for the seconds team in university, but his studious nature and love of the game ensured he made a major success of the change.

“It was different when I started making the transition from physio. I don’t see myself as not being a physio, I’m still qualified and my wife is also a physio so we still have practices and I still do that,” says Nienaber, whose qualifications usefully allow him to run onto the pitch during games to interact with players.

“Back when I transitioned from physio to getting more involved in defence, there wasn’t any professional defence coaches. There was maybe Shaun Edwards, I’m not sure who was there in 2002 and 2003. I know Les Kiss came from rugby league but there wasn’t a lot of professional guys.

“When you look at a boy coming out of a schools system now, he’s been coached by a defence coach. Back then, there wasn’t a lot of defence coaches so the transition was different back then.”

Western Province and the Stormers’ defence improved vastly under Nienaber’s guidance while the Springboks brought him on board as a consultant coach for the 2011 World Cup, while Erasmus was also involved in that tournament as a technical specialist.

2012 saw Erasmus appointed as the SARU’s general manager of high performance, meaning he wasn’t working directly with Nienaber on a daily basis, but their close relationship continued and when the former got offered the Munster job in 2016, his trusted defence coach was always going to come with him.

While some Munster fans were frustrated with the circumstances of the duo’s departure in 2017, there is no doubting Erasmus and Nienaber left solid foundations behind them in the southern province, while they loved their time in Ireland.


japan-rugby-wcup-south-africa Erasmus at the World Cup this week. Source: Mark Baker

“It helped me in three ways,” says Erasmus of his spell with Munster. “The first thing when I went over to Munster was to be closer to my family and my children.

“They were at the age where they were only going to be in the house for another three or four years and then they were going to university, so I was trying to be at home with my family more.

“The plan was to stay for three to five years, to see if we could get citizenship and so on. Then when we got there, three things happened. The first one is that I think I got much better as a coach for different reasons, and not to suck up to the Irish people but because it genuinely happened, the way they used their resources in terms of the amount of players they have, the player pool.

“They don’t just throw a player away when he’s not good enough. They take their 160 players which are their group of professional players and they really develop them because they’re the only players they have and they get the best out of them.

“That really taught me a lesson because sometimes in South Africa we tend to just take the next one, and the next one, and that’s how sometimes some players get lost in the system.

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“And then you become a better coach because you’re coaching in this wonderful competition [the Pro14] where you coach against a Scottish coach, a Welsh coach, a New Zealand coach, against Dave Rennie coaching Glasgow, where the conditions are different, weather conditions and different pitches. So, tactically, it really teaches you how to be a better coach.

“Then the third thing, most importantly, apart from the supporters, which is awesome. Even when you go through the biggest dip, the Irish supporters back you 100%. I really saw a really good side of understanding what support really means, and that was a wonderful experience.

“And then the last thing, I saw how much I missed South Africa. I saw what the potential was in South Africa with the amount of players that we have, if we use our resources well, if we plan better.

“So yes, I think I grew as a coach. I understood what we actually could be if we got our house in order in South Africa and then overall I just think Irish people are really good people.”

jacques-nienaber-with-rassie-erasmus Nienaber and Erasmus loved their time in Ireland. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Nienaber shares a similar feeling about growing as a coach in Ireland.

“As Rassie said, we had a good time in Ireland,” concurs Nienaber. “It was a great set-up for us and we really enjoyed it there but, yes, you do miss South Africa. It was tough for the kids moving them over and coming back again.

“They had been taught in English over there [in Ireland] and then had to go back to Afrikaans back in South Africa, so that was a thing we had to handle on a personal level. Other than that, it’s been good.”

The pair of them have certainly made a huge impact on the Springboks over the last two years, turning a sinking ship into a watertight and powerful vessel.

Nienaber’s defence has conceded just three tries in this World Cup so far and Erasmus’ leadership has ensured this Boks squad is feeling confident about Sunday’s semi-final.

The Erasmus and Nienaber double act is certainly still working.

“Why do we work well together? I think we are friends for a long time but, as we always say, whenever there’s a rugby decision or something that needs to be discussed about rugby between the four lines, sometimes we disagree and get angry with each other, but it’s never personal, it’s always to make the team better,” says Nienaber.

“We’ve got a good relationship in terms of that – being friends on one side but also Rassie being my boss.

“We can have a drink together but also when we have to make decisions about rugby, we don’t have egos in terms of accepting we’re going to go this or that route.”

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Murray Kinsella  / Reports from Tokyo

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