By Mark Gleeson
JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - New South Africa coach Jacques Nienaber will complete a remarkable rise through the ranks when he takes charge of the Springboks for the first time this month – having never played the game at senior level or served as a head coach before.
Nienaber was Rassie Erasmus’ chief lieutenant when South Africa won the World Cup in 2019 and then promoted to the head coach role two months later.
But the COVID-19 pandemic has delayed his debut until Friday, when he takes charge of the world champions against Georgia in Pretoria.
It is the first of two warm-up tests before the three-match series against the British and Irish Lions begins later in the month.
The 48-year-old Nienaber began as a physiotherapist but evolved into a passionate student of the game, working cheek-by-jowl with Erasmus, who is regarded as among the game’s leading innovators.
Nienaber attended Grey College, the Bloemfontein school that has produced a conveyor belt of Boks. But Nienaber, by his own admission, came nowhere close to first team rugby. In fact he concentrated on cross county running.
He first worked with Erasmus at Free State and the Cats, a Super 12 franchise made up of the Lions and Free State, and his role evolved from physio work, to strength and conditioning and eventually as a defence coach.
Erasmus took him with to Munster and when appointed in charge of the Boks in 2017, brought Nienaber back to South Africa.
The pair plotted and schemed their way to a World Cup triumph in Japan and while Erasmus remains a powerful presence as South Africa’s Director of Rugby, Nienaber has stepped up to the coaching role.
"Since my announcement as Springbok coach in January 2020, it feels so long ago, and it is long ago. You almost felt at some stage it's never going to happen," he said this week.
"I'm pretty excited that it's actually here, and we are playing our first test in a very long time."
About his appointment, he added: “I know people may see it as a strange pathway to coaching, but to me the pathway is more about work ethics, passion for the game and to love every moment of what you do.
“Every coach has a different story, but the constant factor is working hard and having passion for what you do.”
South Africa’s previous coaches were mostly ex-Boks but Kitch Christie and Jake White, who were World cup wining coaches in 1995 and 2007, never played higher than club rugby, setting a new tone for appointments.
(Editing by Pritha Sarkar)