Jacques Nienaber: Munster will evolve

Jacques Nienaber had quite a reputation to live up to when he signed up as Munster defence coach last summer.
Jacques  Nienaber: Munster will evolve

After all, his impressive CV included physiotherapist/strength & conditioning coach with South African Currie Cup teams the Cheetahs and Cats; defence coach with Western Province, Stormers, Junior Springboks, South Africa Schools and Springboks as well as high performance manager with the South African Rugby Union prior to joining Munster.

Linking up with compatriot Rassie Erasmus presented no problem; it was a different matter, though, when it came to meeting and working with a new bunch of players coming off a couple of disappointing seasons.

“When we decided to come to Munster, we did a lot of research and analysis on the players,” he recalls. “I thought they had great quality players in terms of what I could see. Obviously you know the internationals but I remember looking at some of the players and I thought they had great skill-sets. But I didn’t know them.

“After about the first month, I told Rassie: ‘I think we are blessed. We have got very skilful rugby players.’ I didn’t expect that. I was surprised to see the physicality, the amount of detail that’s in their plays. Their coachibility was different to where I was coming from.

“I wasn’t expecting that and I still believe it will be a process. The team will evolve, our skillset will evolve, as a coach I must evolve with the team and sometimes we may go overboard a bit. We probably didn’t have good balance at the beginning of the season, it got better, and now we have good balance in terms of aggression and different areas and facets.”

Nienaber was just settling into his new role and enjoying some promising early season results when tragedy struck.

“You obviously don’t expect something like Axel’s death to happen,” he laments. “It never happened to me before in any set-up so there’s no manual for that. It was a difficult time. I only knew him for probably three months and we had been getting on very well.

“From the first word in the first minute I got here, everybody from the people at school (in Monaleen), our neighbours, people from the club, the players, were all awesome in helping us settle in and Axel was always open. We sat down and explained the things we were trying to do, what my vision would try to be and how we would try to filter it into the squad. And he explained his department and stuff he was taking charge of. We were very transparent and got along really well.” Was he surprised by the outpouring of emotion?

“I knew Axel in terms of a player and that he played many times for Ireland and stuff like that but I never knew he was such a big icon throughout the country and beyond,” said Nienaber.

“For us in South Africa, the passing of somebody will be very, very personal. It is different than here so that was something I wasn’t expecting.

“Playing the Glasgow game they day after the burial was surreal. The rugby was actually the one part we did know so I think even the players, the moment we had a training session, it was something that took our minds off what had happened so there was massive energy and focus.

“The only emotion I have from after the game was the fear of not honouring him in the way we played. When the game finished, I was so relieved. I didn’t even know what the score was. I was just so relieved that we put up a worthy display.”

Nienaber will be in Edinburgh at the end of this week but concentrating almost entirely on Munster’s Guinness PRO12 clash with Edinburgh on Friday night.

He’ll be back in Limerick before Saturday’s big game at Murrayfield kicks off but that doesn’t mean he isn’t eagerly looking forward to the game or the role to be played by Conor Murray.

“I just think it is something that will get managed well during the game,” he says of the scrum-half’s role in light of all the publicity emanating from the recent Glasgow-Munster game. “Obviously, they will put pressure on him because he’s a world-class nine so any team playing against him would be stupid not to do so in a legal way. I think it will be well managed during the game.”

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