The old South African army pals behind the rise of Munster

Under Rassie Erasmus, Jacques Nienaber’s influence is already taking effect

Munster’s defence coach Jacques Nienaber: he hopes to bring the province to their full potential under the directorship of his long-time friend, Rassie Erasmus.  Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

Munster’s defence coach Jacques Nienaber: he hopes to bring the province to their full potential under the directorship of his long-time friend, Rassie Erasmus. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho


Check out Jacques Nienaber’s Linkedin profile and outside of his job as a rugby defence coach, his three main interests are project management, investing and wine.

“Yes, I’m very keen on a bottle of wine,” he concedes, laughing. “Or a glass. I enjoy wine.” He’s noticed how expensive wine is in Ireland, albeit with a variety of choice, especially in European wine, which he had not been accustomed to.

“We don’t get a lot of French, Spanish, Portuguese or Italian wine in South Africa. When I walk into a shop and see the different countries and regions, it’s unbelievable. Back home we would get a lot of South African wines, and maybe Argentinian wines, and through Super Rugby we would know Australian and New Zealand wines. But for me it’s nice to learn about European wines. I love a good red wine, but I won’t be picky if it’s a good white,” he admits, chuckling again.

Intense and demanding though he may be on the training ground, interviewing Nienaberg and reliving his circuitous route from physiotherapy through strength and conditioning coaching to being a defence coach, confirms the impression of a man who enjoys life and a laugh.

The exposure to Europe and its grapes is all part of the rich tapestry he wanted to experience. For the 43-year-old Nienaber and his wife Elmarie and two young children, the timing for a move abroad was right. They were of a mind to live overseas, most probably England, when he graduated from Free State University in 1996, whereupon Nienaber had job opportunities in rugby with the Free State Cheetahs. Almost 20 years on his wife reasoned that if they didn’t take this opportunity they might never do so. Their son Carlo, who is 13, was moving into secondary school anyway, their daughter Lila is nine, and so moving after the next World Cup would have been more complicated.

Helpfully, they have settled in quickly. Carlo has started secondary school in Castletroy College, while Lila is going to the nearby Monaleen National School. “They are having a blast.”

Born and bred in Bloemfontein, Nienaber’s dad, Gerrie, worked in merchant sales for a steel-making company and his mother, Elize, was a book-keeper. As an only child, he describes his upbringing as “privileged in the sense that we were middle-class so I was always fortunate to go to good schools and had anything I liked to try, I was always given the opportunity.”

Nienaber attended that noted rugby school Grey College in Bloemfontein, and mostly played for their sevens team, preferring to compete in athletics at 800 and 1500 metres. “I loved playing rugby, but I wasn’t good at it at all. I was a pretty skinny little flanker, and pretty horrible at it. I played for the Residents team in University, but only for their seconds and thirds; always for fun. Never competitively.”

On leaving school, Nienaber decided to do a year’s service in the South African army. “I think it was good for me in terms of the discipline side of things. I was always a disciplined person but then I went off the rails a little bit as I came to the end of my school years. As boys you become naughty, and I think the Army was a good time to get me focussed again. It’s almost like gap years these days. All of a sudden you need to take care of yourself, and the Army gives you lots of responsibility looking after people.”

From there, Nienaber completed a Bachelor of Science at Free State University, from 1992 to ‘96. In his time there, he began working as a physio for the residents’ team he played for, and also the first team, while also studying a medical course.

The University coach, Tat Botha, brought him into the Free State Under-20 set-up. “He was the heart and soul of University and Bloemfontein rugby. Jannie de Beer, Andre Venter, Os du Randt, Rassie (Erasmus) and all those Free State boys, he was the guy who looked after them for years.”

The main influence, of course, has been Rassie Erasmus. It was in the Army that Nienaber and Erasmus first met. “He was one of our top graduates,” recalls Nienaber. “He was quite good at the Army, and he stayed on another year, and when he then came to the University and started playing for the University, we met again.”

On foot of Nienaber coming into the Cheetahs set-up as a physio, he came into contact with Erasmus, then a player with the Cheetahs, once more. In 1999, Andre Markgraaff invited him in to the Cats Super Rugby franchise, where Erasmus was the captain.

In 2004, the Cheetahs’ strength and conditioning coach, Derick Coetzee, was brought into the Springboks’ fold by Jake White. Unable to find a like for like replacement, the Free State union asked Nienaber if he would consider making the transition, and he did an on-line post-grad course.

A year later, Erasmus made his transition from captain to coach, as the two old army buddies found themselves working together again. The Cheetahs didn’t have a large management team at the time, and many of the backroom staff double jobbed.

Whereupon, when Erasmus became the head coach of Western Province and the Stormers in 2008, he persuaded Nienaber to become his defence coach; much more of a quantum light.

“It sounds like a massive move but in 2008 there weren’t so many specialist defence coaches in the southern hemisphere. There may have been two or three who were on permanent contracts with a team. I think it would be a tougher challenge now because players are getting coached in defence now form an early age.

“At that stage, there weren’t a lot of defence coaches and systems, so you could stand there with conviction and say: ‘I think we should do it this way.’ And if you screwed it up, the players wouldn’t have known,” he concludes, chuckling.

Whatever about that, Nienaber admits it was both more challenging and more rewarding. “Yeah, the nice aspects of the coaching are the plans you and the team make, and getting the players to buy in. It’s like playing chess, but real-life chess. It’s nice.”

After both Erasmus and Nienaber had stints with the Springboks at the 2011 World Cup, Erasmus became the SARU’s High Performance Manager, but Nienaber remained with the Stormers, working under current Boks’ coach Allister Coetzee.

Nienaber’s methods work. They’ve been proven to do so. In the 2007 Super Rugby campaign, the last season before Nienaberg took over the Stormers’ defence, they had the 12th best record in terms of points conceded. The following two years only four teams conceded less points, and in each of 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013, they conceded the least points of any team in the Super Rugby Championship. Even in 2014, when ranked 11th in the final standings, they had the fourth best defence.

Nienaber then decided to work full-time for the SARU High Performance unit under Erasmus, working with the South African Schools, under-age, Womens, Sevens and Junior Springboks sides for a few years.

“At that stage it (2015) would have been my eighth Super Rugby season, and I wouldn’t say I was getting bored with it, but it was getting a little monotonous. So it was a good opportunity to do something different.”

Nienaber worked with the Springboks again for the three-test series against Ireland last June. By then, Erasmus had signed on with Munster and almost as night follows day, so Nienaberg relocated to Munster. He had a job for life with the SARU, but was keen to take up his old friend’s offer.

“We work well together,” says Nienaber. “We’re good friends, but I think we have the perfect balance. At work, it’s nice and professional. I don’t think he would treat me differently from anyone else. We always say that whenever we disagree on the pitch or at work, it’s never personal. We just want to get it right. But yes, we’re great mates, and he’s been very good to me.”

Ask him what are the basic tenets of a good defence prompts his longest pause. “Probably culture,” he eventually comments. “You’ve got to get the culture right. I think defence is not necessarily a nice thing to do. All rugby players, if you ask them: ‘Listen, you can play with the ball for 80 minutes or you can not have the ball for 80 minutes?’ I think the majority would go: ‘Yes, we would like to play with the ball.’ So I think you should get the culture right in terms of doing stuff that will not always get good credit.”

In Munster’s three games to date against the Scarlets, Cardiff and the Dragons, the number of missed tackles has gone from 24 to 17 to just six, with line breaks conceded going from six to 14 to just one last Saturday in Rodney Parade, when the only try conceded was from an intercept.

But the statistic that Nienaber gives most credence to is simply points conceded. “Sometimes you can have 24 missed tackles and you don’t concede one try. Sometimes you can concede no missed tackles but because they had seven attackers on two defenders and just passed the ball to run around you. Or a team can score five tries from their maul, so statistically, there’s no missed tackles or line breaks, but you’ve conceded five tries. I think the defence’s job is twofold. The first thing is not to concede points, and the second is to get the ball back.”

Baby steps. Like Erasmus, Nienaberg is only three games into a tenure which, over three seasons, might take in around 90 matches.

As to what he and Munster might achieve by then, and he says “their full potential” while apologising for the “boring” answer. “I think there is a lot of improvement still left in us and a lot of stuff that can still get better, and obviously the squad will change a little over time, so I would like the team to perform defensively at their full potential.”

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