It’s barely week two and already the two-time World Cup winner has his feet under the table in the Leinster high performance centre in UCD. Literally and figuratively.
After back-to-back trophyless seasons for the first time since the initial two campaigns under Leo Cullen, 2015-16 and 2016-17, Leinster were excited by having the input of a new and different voice and Jacques Nienaber certainly ticks those boxes.
The one-time physio turned strength and conditioning coach also benefits from a season and a half working in Munster as defence coach before assuming the same role for the Springboks’ 2019 World Cup triumph and then as head coach in the last, ultimately triumphant retention of their title. That was less than six weeks ago but he’s already consigned it to history.
“No, it’s gone! Water under the bridge,” he said at his first audience with the media yesterday. “The past is the past, you can’t change that. And the future, the future. One day when you’re older maybe you’ll enjoy the memories, but it’s done.”
He also needed a break from international rugby after six years. While there were only 13 Tests or so a year, he was struck one day earlier this year when having a beer with his son, who informed Nienaber he’d been away for six months.
His family are with him in Dublin and last night he could go out for dinner with his wife.
“I just felt I had l had lost a lot of time with my family. That’s why the decision was made in January/February. My wife said, ‘Listen, I don’t think we can do another four years of this.’ The kids said, ‘Dad, we need you at home’ and that’s why when the opportunity came up again with Leinster I was nervous because I didn’t want to lose that cutting edge, being challenged. I didn’t want to lose that because I feel that makes you a good coach.
“And that’s why this job for me was a perfect fit. I mean I’m going to be challenged as a coach tremendously. There’s going to be big expectations but at least I have some family time as well.”
If nothing else Nienaber is a compelling character and a passionately deep thinker about rugby.
Noting the different cultures, personalities and humour in South Africa and Ireland, whatever he hopes to achieve in the next two seasons, Nienaber began by stressing, “Let me start this way: I don’t think you can copy and paste because the skillset and the athletic ability that the South Africa players had is different to the Leinster players. The athletic profile here is different and the skillsets are different.
“That’s probably the frustrating part for me, to find out where the skillset of this group is and they do have certain skillsets that are better than what we had in South Africa. Some of them have better athletic profiles and vice versa.
“So, the key thing for me is to find out what we have and how we can utilise that with a system that I have in my head. It won’t necessarily be the way that we defended with South Africa, or with Munster for that matter.
“If you look at how we defended with South Africa and with Munster it wasn’t the same.”
Leinster make a virtue out of conducting non, or heavily reduced, contact work in training, but in that sense the ‘Boks were no different.
“No, we didn’t have contact. We would take each other’s heads off. It would be shoulder check, similar to what they do here. In the Springboks, if we had a full contact session we would have 14 stitches. No, they would write each other off. The level of contact was controlled. Controlled shoulder check.”
Not that tempers wouldn’t fray “and there will be a bit of a full-on session happening for a minute or two and then you have to calm everyone down. That happens all over. It happened in Munster where they had to kiss and make up afterwards and it happens here and it happens in South Africa.”
The Springboks retained the World Cup after becoming the first side in international rugby to win three Tests in a row by a solitary point in the quarter-final, semi-final and final, but there was no magic ingredient.
“Sometimes you just need a little bit of luck,” he began, and reiterated repeatedly. “Sometimes you just need a big play, a charge down in a quarter-final from Cheslin Kolbe and you win the game by a point. Sometimes it goes your way and sometimes not, and I know that’s not what people want to hear but I mean that is the reality.
“Sometimes you’re one foot away. Maybe a pass sticks and you score, and you win and nobody will ask questions. But sometimes you knock the ball and it just didn’t go your way. You lose and everybody will ask questions.
“The thing is, in big games, it’s going to be that tight and you must try and play the big points well, if I can put it like that. Hopefully I can add value to that, but there is no silver bullet. There’s no ‘Listen guys, if you did this, X, Y, and Z, you will win big games’. You must be in the fight until the end and then you hope you nail a big moment, and you hope they don’t.”
This week, Nienaber returns to the Champions Cup, which he describes as the closest competition to Test rugby. Sunday’s grudge re-match with La Rochelle brings to mind the dog-eared narrative that Leinster, and to a degree Ireland, have a size issue that goes back to Saracens and big bad Will Skeleton, the province’s kryptonite as Ian Madigan describes him. But it’s not a theory to which Nienaber subscribes.
“The interesting thing is when we played Ireland, that was the narrative. I think there is always going to be narratives, driven by, let’s say, the South African media, the South African public, and the Irish media and the Irish public.
“They’re going to drive narratives and one will be physicality. This one will be ‘The ‘Boks can’t move’. Somewhere in between those two narratives, there is the reality and that reality is embedded in truth.
“You know what’s the funny thing, when we put the two teams up, the South African team and the Irish team, the average weight of the Irish team were 1kg heavier than the South African side,” said Nienaber, citing the size of James Lowe on the wing.
“I don’t think that the Irish teams are any smaller than their other counterparts; it will be interesting, I don’t know. This weekend, if you take the average weight of La Rochelle and the average weight of the Leinster side it would be interesting to see, across the 23, who is heavier and not heavier.”
On figuring out the coaches’ differing responsibilities, Nienaber says:
“Just looking at it Andrew [Goodman] will run the attack and Leo will give input, and on team selection Leo [Cullen] will do that but Andrew will give input. So I think it’s pretty much the same [as the Springboks], it’s just important that everybody knows who is responsible for what.
“The players must know who is responsible for the defence’s job. So if somebody needs to get fired it’s him. The players must know because if they want clarity on something specific they must come to you and then obviously between coaches you must know because I mustn’t think that ‘Ok, Leo’s going to sort that out’ or Leo thinks I’m going to sort it out.
“Just having clarity on who [has] responsibility for what and who is going to give input on what, that we will figure out as things go along.”
On the demands of the public and the players
There were “no surprises” in coming from “an environment where 60 million people are dependent on you to perform, where the players have a high demand in your preparation and the information they get from you and how you coach them.
“When you think of this group, they’re used to Andy [Farrell] and the international environment. So that’s what I expected when I took the job, and that’s why I wanted to take the job. It’s not an international environment, but it is an environment that will be as challenging as an international environment. That’s what I expected and that’s what I’m getting.
“I don’t think mediocracy is something they will endure, so the product I have to deliver as a coach should not be mediocre. Yes, it doesn’t mean there won’t be failures, but you must be well-prepared as much as you can in the timeframe that you have available.”
On returning to the Champions Cup this weekend
“The Heineken Cup is probably the closest you will get to Test match ever. I don’t think even Super Rugby is that close to Test match rugby. So for me that’s the thing. If you ever want to know of you can make it to Test match level then the Heineken Cup is the closest thing to it.”