EXCLUSIVE | Springbok coach’s ‘humanity’ fears for his squad in NZ

  • Leaving loved ones in a still virus-afflicted SA will be hard for the Bok players later in the year, warns Jacques Nienaber.
  • The Bok coach will only sit in front of a full squad for the first time in his new capacity at the Rugby Championship.
  • He says “rugby capacity” takes some six to eight weeks to build in players.

Steeling his Springbok world champions sufficiently in the extraordinary climate for a defence of the Rugby Championship crown in New Zealand will be tough enough … yet perhaps also the least of head coach Jacques Nienaber’s obstacles.

What he calls the “humanity factors” hovering over his charges during the anticipated tournament are already a strong concern for the new Bok mastermind.

In a frank interview with Sport24, Nienaber was responding to the World Rugby revelation earlier this week that a window period from 7 November to 12 December would be set aside for the annual event to be held – in a single country, widely expected to be coronavirus-free New Zealand.

If the Championship goes ahead, it will be the 47-year-old’s overdue, extremely formidable debut as head coach in succession to World Cup 2019-winning Rassie Erasmus.

Quite apart from the unique aspect of the major southern-hemisphere Test tournament taking place in a specific hosting country for the first time, Nienaber emphasised that he is acutely aware of the likelihood that the Covid-19 crisis will hardly be a thing of the past back in South Africa by then.

“That raises all sorts of extra anxieties, never mind the massively challenging rugby aspects involved,” said Nienaber (who was described by Erasmus upon assuming the top Bok role as someone who “deals brilliantly with people”).

“It is going to very tough for the squad to leave behind wives, children and other loved ones to spend six weeks plus the quarantining needs around the tournament out of South Africa; the coronavirus situation is still so volatile here.

“You can only imagine the predicament facing guys if a close relative, for example, is suddenly badly affected by the virus back home. Can you fly back? Do you fly back? What happens if you then hope to return to the tournament, meaning fresh quarantining requirements?

“I think we will be quite fortunate if that scenario doesn’t crop up for someone in our (midst).

“So it is going to very tough mentally to leave our shores for a couple of months… that humanity factor.”

Nienaber did not sound overly optimistic, either, about the all-important prospect of getting a domestic rugby competition up and running – after the gap since March – by the end of August, as intended at this point.

“If you look around the world, no country has played sport at the pandemic’s peak… and we are not even at that point yet in South Africa. Government may halt all contact sport again if the numbers flare.”

The qualified physiotherapist also painted a stark, blunt picture of how far behind their greatest rivals the Boks will be when the Rugby Championship begins.

For one thing, he only expects to be able to sit in front of a full, desired national squad for the first time when they are in New Zealand itself later in the year – all going well – for the initial, enforced isolating period as a group.

“It won’t be any time ahead of that: when we finally get together, a lot of water would have gone under the bridge.

“The longer we stay out (not playing competitively in SA), the further we will lag behind the likes of New Zealand and Australian rugby.

“We have just begun training in small groups at the franchises; the New Zealand ones had five weeks of proper training and now some six rounds of Super Rugby Aotearoa – that puts them about 11 weeks ahead of us already.

“Remember that what you call ‘rugby capacity’ (competitive readiness) takes six to eight weeks to build.

“We will have to accept at the Rugby Championship that our preparation just won’t have been of the same quality as New Zealand’s; they will also have played Bledisloe Cup Tests against the Wallabies before the tournament even begins, whereas we may be lucky to have five or six purely domestic matches beneath our belts by then.”

One shaft of light beckons for Nienaber in around three weeks’ time.

The middle of August will signal the first of his not insignificant number of overseas-based Springboks returning to action in the English Premiership (Lood de Jager, Faf de Klerk and Vincent Koch, for example) and a week later Damian de Allende and RG Snyman, both now of Munster, should resurface at PRO14 level.

With all French-based Boks then kicking off in earnest in early September, the national coach will start to get some sort of picture of where his key charges are at, physically and mentally after lockdown.

“We have done roadmaps on all the players,” Nienaber said. “It will be good to start seeing video footage of several of them soon in match situations.

“The technology is all there: on a Sunday morning, unless you have had technical hassles, you are usually in a position to download all the relevant (weekend) games.”

Just how frustrating has 2020 been so far for a national coach who would have anticipated, upon appointment, already having had three home Tests (two against Scotland, one against Georgia) behind him?

“It’s been strange; challenging. This is the first pandemic of this (global magnitude) in around 100 years.

“The real frustration is the fluidity of the situation… we can only work with what we can control.

“Right now the focus is on getting through three weeks of small-group training, and taking it from there…”     

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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