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Kolisi puts Nienaber in focus as Boks’ quieter coach enters his last week

Springbok captain Siya Kolisi with coach Jacques Nienaber during the captain's run on Friday at Stade Omnisports des Fauvettes in Domont, Paris ahead of Saturday's 2023 Rugby World Cup semifinal against England.
Springbok captain Siya Kolisi with coach Jacques Nienaber during the captain's run on Friday at Stade Omnisports des Fauvettes in Domont, Paris ahead of Saturday's 2023 Rugby World Cup semifinal against England.
Image: Steve Haag/Gallo Images

Jacques Nienaber has been loath to draw attention to himself during his almost four years as Springbok head coach.

Not that he has been media-shy. It's just that Nienaber has almost exclusively existed in the context of rugby nitty-gritty in his public speaking engagements.

After the Rugby World Cup, Nienaber is off to Leinster where he will take up a coaching position with one of the northern hemisphere's most prolific trophy collectors.

After the Boks' nail-biting 16-15 semifinal win over England, one of the game's most natural, from-the-heart speakers was asked what he made of Nienaber as head coach of the Springboks.

Nienaber, seated next to Siya Kolisi in the bowels of the Stade de France, cringed a little at the prospect of the content of his character being brought to the open by the oratory-abundant Bok captain.

I was 18 years old,” Kolisi rapidly backed up down memory lane.

“I was contracted with the Cheetahs and then I was able to go to Western Province. That is when I met Jacques. He and coach Rassie [Erasmus] used to come to the institute, the Western Province academy. That is where our foundation as a group [began].”

Kolisi explained how the players had to front up physically in full-contact, or koppestamp, sessions.

“It was intense. I got to know him then and as I went on he became my senior coach and one thing I love about him is he goes far deeper than what is happening on the field.

“He got to know me, my family and why I do what I do. He speaks to us with human courtesy,” Kolisi said about the less-explored part of Nienaber's character.

They don’t encourage us to tackle hard. We all know what that is. He knows my kids by name, asks me how I am doing as a person and that is why I can go and give him everything on the field because he cares about the person, he cares about Siya from the township. For the teams, especially in big moments, he talks about every player's journey.”

By this point Nienaber, under a tightly drawn white cap, was swaying gently and grinning awkwardly to Kolisi's left.

It is so special to be known as a person, not just as an object or a rugby player. That’s what he brings to this team. And the fact that he allows families to be around, how much he loves to see our kids running around.

“I know some teams are not allowed to have families, but that is what he creates, that family environment. I have enjoyed every single year I’ve worked with him. The tough times, too, when he comes and calls me out. He is always honest. I can't explain how much I have enjoyed it.”

The Bok captain explained how Nienaber's close personal and professional relationship with Erasmus has proved a potent coaching collective.

The pair know each other from their days in national service. Their paths crossed again at the Cheetahs, where Erasmus was trying to catch the eye as a young player and Nienaber establish himself as a physiotherapist. He was, however, gradually drawn to the game's intricacies. Physiotherapy wasn't his be-all, and he took a particular liking to how defensive systems can be bent and twisted to the demands of an ever-evolving game.

He and Erasmus found success at the Cheetahs before moving to the Stormers. They became involved in the national coaching structures before packing their bags for Munster.

It is from there they returned to South Africa to take up crucial positions in the restoration of the Springbok brand at the start of 2018.

“It was tough when he went away for two years but we clicked, we did not have to learn [to get to know] each other, him and coach Rassie. They just came in and changed things because they love the country,” Kolisi said.

Wherever he goes, they are going to be lucky to have him. The amount of work he puts in, the detail he gets, it makes life so much easier and all you have to do is just watch a screen and the opportunities are there.

He’s a special coach and a special human being and most of all, an amazing father and a great husband. I will miss him and will forever be thankful.”

Kolisi recalled how Nienaber's ways helped embed in him one of his defining qualities as a player.

I remember when I first met him I couldn’t tackle. After that year playing koppestamp every day I had to learn how to tackle,” Kolisi recalled, with Nienaber by then quietly chuckling next him.

Nienaber may well leave the job this week having become the 10th recipient of a men's World Cup winner's medal. Irrespective of the result of Saturday's final against the All Blacks, he can go quietly into the night knowing his voice resonated in the creation of superstars.

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