International Rugby, Opinions, Springboks

Bok coaching change is much of nothing

Mark Keohane, on IOL, writes that while the name of the Bok coach has changed, nothing really has changed with World Cup-winning coach Rassie Erasmus still in charge.

Jacques Nienaber’s appointment as Springbok coach is an interesting one, in which we will only see his influence, or lack thereof, in the Rugby Championship.

Nienaber succeeds World Cup-winning coach Rassie Erasmus in an appointment that is a departure from the traditional. Nienaber, who started his rugby career as a physiotherapist and evolved his role into a defensive coaching specialist and an assistant coach, has never been a head coach.

Erasmus’s priority will be as National Director of Rugby, with Nienaber reporting directly to his long-time working colleague and friend.

When you win a World Cup, your decision-making won’t be questioned. At least not until the national team starts losing. Very few have questioned Nienaber’s promotion to head coach, with the popular script being that he is the product of a wonderful national system and his appointment is a credit for continuity.

I’ll only buy into that if Erasmus effectively remains in charge of the Springboks. Erasmus was a breath of fresh air for Springbok rugby in the past two seasons. I’d have been a lot more optimistic if he had simply continued combining his role as Director of Rugby and Springbok coach.

Erasmus, earlier this week, waxed lyrical about his mate Nienaber.

‘What a story,’ he was quoted as saying, in relation to the prospect of Nienaber getting the head coach job. ‘From physiotherapist to Springbok coach.’

What a story indeed, but I don’t know if the fairytale story of how Nienaber got there is going to have the fairytale ending in 2020.

Nienaber, in interviews this week, insisted he was his own man. He also said he and Erasmus didn’t always agree on rugby philosophy but that both enjoyed the debates and discussions on those aspects in which there was a difference of opinion.

Erasmus believes in Nienaber’s ability and capabilities and, having worked with him for more than a decade, that has to be respected.

It is, however, one thing to be the best defensive coach in the game and quite another to be the head coach of the World Champion Springboks.

Nienaber, as stressed in the official release from the South African Rugby Union, will take charge of the day-to-day responsibilities of being the Springbok coach and Erasmus will continue to direct strategy.

In theory, this sounds wonderful but the practicality and reality may be different. People change when portfolios change.

Nienaber, post his appointment, said it would be business as usual, given that Erasmus remained the boss. Nienaber has publicly said the strength of his working relationship with Erasmus is that neither has an ego.

Long may it continue to be so because I’ve seen many a man’s character change, the moment they’ve stepped into the Springbok coaching role.

I get why Erasmus would appoint Nienaber, especially because of the trust he has in Nienaber, from a rugby perspective and as a loyal friend. It would make more sense than to bring in an outside head coach, who possibly would clash with Erasmus.

I also get the continuity theme, which is why I would have preferred Erasmus to simply continue. But I am not as convinced as most that there shouldn’t be questions asked about Nienaber’s capacity to handle the Bok hot seat.

Unless, of course, Erasmus has changed the direction of Springbok coaching history and, as National Director of Rugby, will effectively coach the team come the international season.

The World Champions have the comfortable two-Test series against Scotland and one-off hit out against Georgia before the Rugby Championship. All three Tests will be won, regardless of who fronts the media as Springbok coach.

The biggest questions will be asked in the Rugby Championship and, for me, the biggest of these will come from the Dave Rennie-coached Wallabies.

The All Blacks will never be an easy opponent, but under Ian Foster they will be more vulnerable than they have ever been in the professional era.

Nienaber’s contribution as a defensive specialist has been massive every time he has worked with Erasmus. The duo transformed the Cheetahs, Western Province and the Stormers defense, were equally effective with Munster and the World Cup-winning Springboks.

The South African Rugby Union CEO Jurie Roux acknowledged Nienaber’s appointment was based on Erasmus’s recommendation and endorsement. Roux said Nienaber’s promotion was deserved and was an opportunity (for Nienaber) ‘to come out of the shadows’. He also was very clear that Erasmus remained the ‘director of Springbok affairs’.

Erasmus confirmed he would be in the coach’s box at every Test match and with the team for the majority of the time, which then asks, what exactly has changed?

The answer would be very little, and that in itself is the greatest positive because, to quote Erasmus, he will still be responsible for strategy and results.

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