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Unpopular opinion: Maybe World Cup-winning Springbok coaches know what they’re doing

Has winning the World Cup made us arrogant or caused amnesia? Last time it took 18 months to turn the Boks around from their lowest to winners. With 14 months left now, some unpopular coaching decisions will be made for quality assurance
Thu, Jul 21, 2022

PHOTO: Chasing the Sun

If his tweets are anything to go by, Schalk Burger Senior – presumably tweeting with a vat of his favourite wine vintage by his side – apparently knows more about rugby than all the Springbok coaches put together.

The Boks’ first-ever defeat to Wales at home in the recently concluded three-test series moved “Skala” to put down the wine and intimate on a tweet (because who calls people directly, these days?) that SA Rugby director of rugby Rassie Erasmus and head coach Jacques Nienaber had no plan for a World Cup title defence just over a year away.

How much salt you should take with what Burger Sr – an Apartheid Springbok and the father of World Cup winner and the best rugby pundit in South Africa right now, Schalk Burger – says, can be gleaned from him getting misty-eyed over getting no recognition from SA Rugby for playing for the country “during trying times”, which is a tone-deaf story for another day.

Burger Sr wasn’t the only prominent rugby figure to use the media as a platform to voice his frustrations with the current Bok management team. Former Springbok coach Jake White needed no less than two website columns to get his jabs in.

The first, which was a response to Nienaber’s comments following the Boks’ above-mentioned loss in Bloemfontein after making 14 changes to the team that narrowly won the match before it, reminded the head coach that international level isn’t a place to learn for coaches.

White then used the sequel column to join the rest of the country in bemoaning the fact that Nienaber’s team has the creativity of a blunt object in attack. Hate him or hate him, White will go down as one of South Africa’s greatest rugby coaches.

The catch is that the same thing that has made him such an adaptable coach – an inability to resist skulduggery – is the same reason he is easily one of the most divisive Springbok coaches in history.

The comment about coaches not learning their trade at international level was meant to be a barb for Nienaber, who inherited the job from his friend Erasmus after a history as a physiotherapist, a conditioning coach and a defence coach.

But White was being a little disingenuous because he once admitted to making also having occasion to learn from his mistakes as Bok coach to New Frame: “I was coaching international rugby at 40 years old – some guys have just finished playing at that age – so I would have made mistakes and done things in a way other people wouldn’t.”

Be that as it may, the main reason every man and his dog seem to be looking over Nienaber’s shoulder and critiquing his work in red ink is the series against the Welsh only finishing 2-1 in the hosts’ favour.

The first game took an injury time penalty to win; defeat in the second was attributed to the multiple changes; and while the Boks followed their World Cup mantra to the letter by f*cking the visitors up physically, the bluntness of their attack meant they left a lot of points on the table.

There’s something about being the reigning champions that has either turned Springbok fans arrogant or made them forgetful. As evidenced by the fact that their bench is split six-two in favour of forwards so they can effectively field two packs of forwards during a game, champagne rugby is never really on the menu for the Boks.

Besides, since readmission the Boks have only ever sporadically played attractive rugby, the last time they consistently did so being under Nick Mallett between 1997-2000 (that’s right, it’s been 22 years). The forgetfulness on the part of Bok supporters is our nip-tuck record against the Welsh.

Thanks to Wales basically adopting a staring contest approach when playing the Boks until somebody blinks, only twice has the winning team between the two emerged with a margin of over 10 points in the last 10 matches, with the rest of the result being decided by three to four points.

Nienaber’s decision to make 14 changes for the second test met with outrage and accusations of cheapening Springbok caps. The irony of that is most of those change were players the public had been begging to be picked.

One of the things you learn from being a sportswriter is how little you know about whatever game you cover, especially when it comes to putting a team together. That’s why whenever I disagree with a coach’s selection I’m more than happy to defer to them because my teams don’t play on Saturdays, which also means they never lose.

The team Nienaber put out for Bloemfontein was loaded with everybody’s favourites, yet by losing to Wales – by a point in the final minute, mind you – it went some way towards proving that there’s more to winning games than just throwing the best names together.

Because he’s wiry, hairless and bespectacled, there’s a temptation to see Nienaber as some kind of accountant. If he is an accountant, it is because he there is a forensic element to how he goes about selecting players for the Boks.

“Basically, what we do is we build a profile of our players in the different fundamental areas of the game,” Nienaber explained. “Taking a forward for example, it would be his scrums, line-out work, mauling work, ball-carries breakdown work, tackles, off-the-ball work, his involvement in the kicking game...

“After we’ve built a profile like that, we discuss it as the coaches and write comments where we feel the player is, what we feel his pathway to the team is, then we deliver the profile to the player. Each of us give the player points out of five in terms of whether there is a gap between his profile and what we would like to see in the Bok team.”

With those checks and balances in place, it makes little sense that the rest of us can feel justified to claim Nienaber and Co don’t know what they’re doing when we justify our picks with vague statements like “he’s got time on the ball”.

The Boks have 15 official tests remaining before their World Cup defence, so those changes were necessary if they are going to identify the players outside the team who can add value.

The reason the need to bolster the squad has reached fever pitch is because the Boks didn’t play at all in 2020 and found themselves having to win every game last year due to their playing the British and Irish Lions with little preparation.

Now they find themselves having to cram in upskilling the new players in the games they have remaining until the World Cup. What better way to test if a player has what it takes than playing him in a traditionally tough – and must-win – game against the Welsh?

Maybe we’ve forgotten, but it took Erasmus and Nienaber just 18 months to turn the Boks around from their lowest (which included losing to Italy) to World Cup winners. With 14 months left until the next one, why would we dismiss a body of work that also includes a Rugby Championship title and series win over the Lions just because they lost their first home game against Wales?

Sure, the Boks aren’t a finished object and probably will never play attractively because they like substance over style, but have we lost the plot in saying they’ve lost the plot?