Sunday 18 August 2019

Ruaidhri O'Connor: Jacques Nienaber makes the case for defence

Simon Zebo is among those Munster players setting high standards. Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Simon Zebo is among those Munster players setting high standards. Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

When Rassie Erasmus called his old friend and long-time colleague Jacques Nienaber up last spring, he was offering him a changed life full of new experiences.

Both men agreed that the chance to work together in Ireland was too good to turn down. An opportunity to live life in another country, embrace a new rugby culture and take on the challenge of restoring an increasingly sleepy giant to its old glories.

Nienaber: "None of us had experienced that, we've all had experience of losing somebody close to you, but not in an environment where such a volume of people are influenced." Photo: Sportsfile

When we meet in the Munster's High Performance Centre, it's hard not to be taken by the former physiotherapist who brings huge enthusiasm to everything he does and speaks with wide eyes about his experiences at Europe's rugby grounds, the warmth of the Irish people and even that new experience of figuring out the complexities of a central heating system; something he never had to worry about in Cape Town.

On the pitch, things have gone well. His side have the best defensive record in the Guinness Pro12 and are averaging 1.4 tries conceded in their 15 games under the new regime.

Yet, like all Munster stories in 2016, the grief is barely below the surface.

Anthony Foley's name is never far from the conversation and it is clear from how many times Nienaber mentions his former colleague's name in talking about how he assimilated into Munster that the former No 8 made a mark.

Of all the new experiences Nienaber and Erasmus were anticipating, they could never have foreseen the coaching and management challenge that faced them in the weeks following the tragic death of their new colleague.

"Yes, it was definitely not something that I'd ever experienced," Nienaber says quietly of that incredible week. "It was a hope, hit-or-miss type of thing, you hope you get it right.

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"We didn't understand the Mass, the burial procedures. From that perspective, it was quite new to us and strange and different from South Africa. South Africa is quite a religious society, so from that perspective it was similar and it's just the way things are done is a little bit different.

"You can't prepare for that, there is no manual on how to deal with it. None of us had experienced that, we've all had experience of losing somebody close to you, but not in an environment where such a volume of people are influenced. And then, two weeks later, you're expected to go back to business as usual."

They became grief counsellors as well as coaches, attempting to manage a group of players they were still trying to get to know through the trauma. Coming into the game against Glasgow Warriors at Thomond Park, there was a fear that it could all become too much. Instead, it went the other way and the team won on a special day never to be forgotten.

The grief and the pain will always be there, but the professional game is relentless in carrying on.

"In one sense it was the one thing that was fun," Nienaber reflects on the players' ability to perform.

"If you look at that week, it was so sombre; there was so much pressure and grief that when you walk over those lines and there is a training session, a ball and it's something that you're used to. It's familiar, 'I know this, I like it'.


"It wasn't light, smiling or being disrespectful but it was a release of a bit of energy. But I'm not sure..."

The pain will remain, but the show had to go on and Munster kept on winning until last week's last-gasp defeat at Welford Road.

Their form was underpinned by their improved defence but, rather than claim credit, Nienaber hails the men making the tackles.

"The players work hard for each other. They must take all the credit," he says. "I don't know what the stats are currently, but all I look at is the effort and how much attitude and effort they put into collisions, getting into positions and when things don't go our way, how hard they work to scramble."

He cites the example of the chase that led to Simon Zebo's yellow card at Welford Road last week.

"That, you can't coach," he says. "That comes from the player and what he feels for the club, for the fans and the jersey. You can't coach that, coaches would like to say, 'I got him to do that', but you can't."

The system, he explains, has not changed an awful lot.

"All defence systems are the same," he says. "It's just where your emphasis is that differs a little. Maybe mine will be on line-integrity, the next guy line-speed, the next guy giving them soft-edges, pushing them to the edge.

"When we came here I did a lot of analysis on Munster and their defence. When I presented at the start; Axel said: 'Listen, there's not a lot of difference'. I can't tell you 100pc that there was or was not. From the feedback I've gotten from the players, it's been, 'Yeah, we do that'.

"Everyone is doing the same thing basically. It's just emphasis. A certain coach will drive certain emphases and that will change the output a little bit."

For all of that, Nienaber has a proven track record of improving the defences he is involved in.

A one-time physiotherapist who never rose above the seventh side at the famed rugby academy Grey College, he ran the 800m and 1,500m for South Africa while at school, and met Erasmus during a stint in the army.

When the Springbok played for the Golden Cats franchise, Nienaber was his physio and when he moved to become coach of the Free State Cheetahs he asked the medic to join him. Soon, he was involved in the strength and conditioning side of the game and, with Erasmus's encouragement, began incorporating defensive drills in warm-ups.

The Bloemfontein-based side were operating with a small staff and double-jobbing was the norm. The players weren't fazed by the fact that their physio was giving them instructions on defence.

"I don't think it would be that easy now because players are coming from a school level where they are in defence systems, defensive patterns," he says. "But back then I had a bit of leeway because it was a new concept and it helps when a guy like Rassie empowers you.

"If you have a question, you can always ask him and he's quite sharp like that. So, that helped a lot. I'd a lot of backing from him in terms of that and if a coach empowers you in front of a team then it's easy. The head coach says, that's a guy you want to listen to they listen - you want to stay in the team.

"It is quite weird to go that route, but for me it worked out. I knew the players well, when I started coaching them I knew them for years.

"When I went to (Western) Province, it was probably more difficult because the players didn't know me. It always helps to have a bit of buy-in, because you get good results early on from the players."

That trend has followed from his time with the Springboks to his arrival in Ireland. The players speak highly of his influence and the results, humble as he is about them, speak for themselves.

It was a big decision to up sticks completely and move from Cape Town with his wife Elmarie, son Carlu and daughter Lila, but the experience is working out.

Professionally, he is finding the Munster players to be eminently coachable and willing to soak up large doses of information without much complaint - a trait he puts down to the fact many of them have a university education.

Size-wise, he is of the opinion that the idea that Irish players don't compare with the big beasts back home doesn't match up.

"I was surprised by the size. I had that idea in my head," he said of the notion Irish players are smaller. "I was quite surprised when I got here and I saw the size. I think the Irish people have a misconception... If you look at our (Munster's) pack compared to any Super Rugby pack in terms of weight you'll find 10kg, 10pc here or there. I don't think there's a massive difference."

And then there is the personal element. Back home, they'd be preparing for a summer Christmas and a brai by the beach, but the early darkness means Limerick is lit up at night by festive lights - something they are all enjoying.

As long as the central heating works, it's all good.

"We're enjoying it here, the people have been very good to us," he says of his new home. "From the people at school, the people at the club, our neighbours where we live. From Jerry (Flannery), Felix (Jones); they've been so helpful.

"From that perspective, Ireland is fantastic. The people are friendly, it wasn't that I didn't expect it but everybody helps. If you ask for something they will help you.


"We don't have central heating in South Africa, so from the guy who showed me how to switch it on it was never a problem to come to the postman that will greet me in the mornings. Everyone has been very good."

Today, he'll have another new experience with his first home derby against Leinster at Thomond Park.

"Every game for me is kind of new. I thoroughly enjoyed Saturday's match (at Welford Road), it's the first time that I've experienced a European game outside of Thomond Park and I was surprised to hear the fans singing all the songs that they sing here," he says.

"It shocked me a little bit, it was bizarre. The atmosphere was awesome in terms of the people being right on top of you, there was a lot of intensity.

"The fans are quite knowledgeable, they applaud good work and like our fans do here they really get into what's happening on the pitch. So, I'm looking forward to it."

So are the fans. Out of the sadness, the connection between fans and has been restored. Thomond is buzzing again, no more than when a Munster defender makes a big hit on an opponent in blue. And from that, Nienaber can take some pride.

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