Springbok Coach, Jacques Nienaber. Photograph by Johan Rynners/Gallo Images/Getty Images.
There are some jobs I wouldn’t do for all the money in the world. Running City Power’s social media accounts, for example, seems like something only a masochist would aspire to. And oddly enough, it occurs to me more and more that being the Springbok coach may be one of those jobs, because let’s face it, you’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t. Springbok fans (and the local media) will basically never be happy.
Before people start having apoplexies, let me be clear from the outset – I am referring to Springbok fans broadly, and of course not everyone is the same. But we are a passionate bunch, and we do get very worked up about everything pertaining to our beloved team. The coaching of that team is no exception. And it seems that Jacques Nienaber has invoked the fury of many fans with his game plan, his team selections, and even his qualifications.
It must be hellishly confusing to try and take fan feedback into account. We want the team to win at all costs. But actually, no, we don’t want them to win using their current gameplan, they must win playing a different way. It’s boring. It’s effective. It is what it is. Or maybe we don’t care if we win or lose, as long as we give new up and coming talent a chance to play. Oh no, wait, don’t do it like that, that’s too experimental. We shouldn’t ever lose a game to those teams, but also, we can afford to lose a game or two if it means we’re building for the World Cup. I have whiplash just thinking about it all.
Maybe, and this is a radical idea, I know, we could just support our team (whether our favourites made the squad or not), and that includes the coaches. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that Jacques and his assistants probably know a lot more about what’s happening inside the team, what the plan is, and why they’re making the selections they make, than any of us do, no matter how many rugby games we’ve watched, played, coached, refereed, or whatever. We’re not there. And they are the experts on this specific team. Perhaps Jacques could communicate better with the fans, in order to get our buy in for the plan. He has admittedly come across as somewhat cagey in his last few post-match interviews. We’re never going to get the full story in a soundbite though. Beyond that, you don’t see the CEOs of international companies standing up in front of the media and giving away all their secrets to their competitors, so why do we expect the Springboks’ full gameplan to be laid bare in front of theirs?
In terms of qualifications, I see a ridiculous number of comments on social media about the fact that Jacques should not be coach because he’s “just” a physiotherapist. Firstly, that’s obviously factually incorrect. Jacques hasn’t been “just” a physiotherapist since 2004, when he became the Strength and Conditioning Coach for the Cheetahs. He subsequently served as Defence Coach for Western Province, Munster, and, of course, South Africa, where he was part of the defensive set up from as early as 2011. What does make him different from other Springbok coaches is that he has, indeed, never been a Head Coach before. So perhaps he is a little inexperienced in that regard. But what do we think he was doing at the Rugby World Cup in 2019 – giving massages? He obviously played an integral part in Rassie’s strategising, and there’s a reason Rassie wanted Jacques to succeed him – beyond just the unusual advantage of continuity in the coaching team, he firmly believed Jacques was the man for the job, based on his rugby acumen.
To put it in perspective, Jacques’ win rate is around 61% (61.53% in 2021 and 60% in 2022 to date). So yes, he is slightly below average at the moment - Jake White’s win rate was 67%, Peter de Villiers’ was 63%, Heyneke Meyer’s was 67%, Allister Coetzee’s was 44%, and Rassie Erasmus’s was 65%, for example. However, none of those coaches had to deal with COVID and all the ramifications that came with that. How quickly we forget that Jacques led this team to a British & Irish Lions series victory after having played no rugby, other than a warm-up game against Georgia a few weeks earlier, for almost two years. Not to mention the extremely difficult circumstances associated with all the bio-bubble requirements, and half the team getting sick. We admittedly had a bit of a shocker in the Rugby Championship that year, with the away victory against New Zealand a highlight, but we also had a successful year end tour. Other than the second defeat to Australia, any losses were by very narrow margins. This year, Jacques is testing out a few more combinations (which we all clamoured for last year), so it’s not entirely surprising that we don’t have a 100% win rate. A one-point loss to Wales is not the end of the world we seem to think it is, and frankly, nor is a loss to a much-improved All Blacks side. I know we all think those games should all have been cakewalks, but a little realism may be required. We gave a lot of younger players some much-needed game time during the match against Wales, a team who is always up for it on the day, no matter what their last result may have looked like, and honestly, we all know that, much like the Springboks, even an underperforming All Blacks side is still a team to be reckoned with, as much as we may like to tell ourselves otherwise.
Now, I’m by no means suggesting that Jacques Nienaber is beyond reproach. Like any Springbok coach, we do expect him to perform, and he should be open to (constructive) criticism. But the man had one year at the helm with absolutely no games played, another in which he did pretty well under unique circumstances, and now half a season in which we’ve lost two out of five games. There’s lots more rugby to come this year, which may give us better insight into his performance, as we build toward defending our RWC title next year. Maybe we’ll break the Australian hoodoo tomorrow, maybe we won’t. All I’m saying is that maybe it’s not quite time yet to light the torches and assemble the mob.