Erasmus and Nienaber: Golden partnership forged in the crucible of Munster rugby
Springboks’ head coach says his two years in the Irish system made him a better coach
Munster director of rugby Rassie Erasmus and defence coach Jacques Nienaber at Thomond Park, Limerick in October 2017. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
The paranoid theory always went that Rassie Erasmus, one of four former Irish provincial coaches overseeing World Cup quarter-finalists last weekend, spent two seasons in Munster primarily on a glorified reconnaissance mission with a last-eight tie against Ireland in mind.
However, the Springboks’ head coach, who has overseen a remarkable transformation from the team he took over in just 24 games in charge, yesterday maintained his plan was to stay in Ireland for a further year or two with a view to he and his family acquiring Irish citizenship.
On foot of naming his team for Sunday’s semi-final against Wales in Yokohama (kick-off 6pm local time/9am Irish), which has seen one of the stars of the tournament, Cheslin Kolbe, ruled out with an ankle injury, things changed, said Erasmus, not least because his two years in the Irish system made him a better coach.
“It helped me in three ways. The first thing was when I went over to Munster it 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 more at home with my family.
“The plan was to stay there for three to five years, to see if we can 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 have.
“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.
“And then you become a better coach because you’re coaching in this wonderful competition 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.
I think I grew as a coach. I understood what we actually could be if we got our house in order in South Africa
“Then the third thing, most importantly, was the support, which is awesome. Even when you go through the biggest dip, the Irish supporters back you 100 per cent. 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 the last thing. Overall I just think Irish people are really good people,” he concluded with one of his beaming smiles.
He and Jacques Nienaber have maintained their ongoing on-off working relationship (and it’s been mostly constant) since the early 2000s, the latter having also served as the defence coach with Munster and now the Springboks.
With Nienaber also facing the media after Erasmus, there was particular interest in the pair of them revisiting their somewhat unorthodox route together, given Erasmus helped convert Nienaber from a physiotherapist into a defence coach.
“That was back in . . . hell . . . 1999, when I was still playing?” said Erasmus, when asked to recall the origins of Nienaber’s switch. “He was my physio in 1999 until 2002 when I was still playing and was the captain of a Super Rugby team (then the Cats, now the Lions). He was a physio and obviously when you’re a player and you’re lying on the bed you have a lot of discussions with the physio because you’re 45 minutes there, and there was a lot of rugby discussions then.
“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. From there his passion has always been defence and we slowly got him in to do 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.”
Citing the way Nienaber “works with people and with players”, Erasmus said: “I just think he was just cut out to be a good defensive coach.”
Sometimes we disagree and get angry with each other, but it’s never personal, it’s always to make the team better
For his part Nienaber pointed out he still runs a physio practice with his wife, who is also a physio.
“Back when I transitioned from physio to getting more involved in defence, 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 defence coaches. It was a lot easier transition back then than now. When you look at a boy coming out of a school system, he’s been coached by a defence coach.”
Erasmus and Nienaber first met when they were in the army together.
“In the army, you get fairly tight and then we went to university together,” recalled Nienaber. “Rassie stayed on in the army a little longer, he was much better in the army then I was. He was a very good tactician, as you can see. Then we met up again when I was a physio and he was the captain of the varsity team. We got involved in rugby there.
“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.
“We’ve got a good relationship in terms of that – being friends on one side but also Rassie being my boss. We have that good relationship. 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.
“As Rassie said, we had a good time in Ireland. It was a great set-up for us and we really enjoyed it there but, yes, you do miss South Africa. It was an easy transition but it was tough for the kids moving them over and coming back again. They had been taught in English over there 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.”
So far, very good indeed.