As far as defence coach Jacques Nienaber is concerned, his new charges at Munster already have the right attitude. His job is to nurture it and make it thrive.
For a South African who turned his back on a lifetime’s role with his home union to coach overseas, there must have been a fair amount of trepidation as Nienaber, 43, left his new home in Limerick at the start of pre-season and prepared himself for the possibility that he had dragged his wife and children 10,000 kilometres north of their comfort zone on a fool’s errand.
Fortunately for a coach regarded as one of the best defensive strategists in the game, brought in by the province’s first director of rugby and fellow South African Rassie Erasmus, Nienaber believes his new venture is starting on the right footing, with the Munster squad possessing the necessary character and fortitude on which any defensive system relies.
“I must say, the one thing that struck me, and I’ve said it to the players a lot in the last three or four weeks since I’ve been here, is their — I don’t know what they call it — but their refusal to be defeated,” Nienaber told the Irish Examiner.
“They have an unbelievable drive not to be defeated.
“If you go back, the little bit of what I watched of Munster last year, the last three or four weeks when their backs were against the wall, that is something I could see in the defence.
"When we train against each other, or we’re doing something, somebody will make a mistake on defence and the rest of the team will react and try to rectify that as soon as possible.
“That’s what I saw from the last part of last season and stood out for me and you don’t always get it in all teams. So it tells me it’s something special in the group and we have to nurture that and make it grow as much as possible.
“It’s a trait they bring that I think is quite special and we’ll have to look after.”
Nienaber, whose career in rugby began as a physiotherapist and strength and conditioning coach in South Africa’s Currie Cup and also in Super Rugby at the Cheetahs and Cats, has moved into defence coaching over the last seven years, working with Western Province, the Stormers, Junior Springboks, South African Schools, and the South African Rugby Union where he served under Erasmus as a High Performance Manager.
He worked with new Springboks head coach Allister Coetzee at the Stormers and was reunited in the national team set-up, his final act helping to plot the Boks’ narrow series victory over Ireland in June.
Despite having potentially the rest of his career mapped out at SARU, there was something nagging at Nienaber, though, and when his boss Erasmus answered Munster’s call, the opportunity was too strong to ignore.
“Why this big move? Why Munster, why now? It was something me and my wife were always looking to do. We’re both physios and after we studied we were keen to travel and see different cultures.
"I got involved in Super Rugby straight out of studying and it wasn’t a good time (for travel). At the beginning of the year my wife said, ‘if we’re not going to do it soon, we’ll probably not do it’.
My son (aged 13) had just moved to high school in South Africa so he was moving schools anyway and to move him now was quite good.
For my daughter it was a little bit more of a move, but she’s nine and she’s doing lots of fun things. So it was a good time to do it, in terms of where we are as a family.
“I had a permanent position with SA Rugby so I could have worked for SA Rugby until I was 62.
"I was permanently employed by them as a high performance manager and I’d worked with Allister at the Stormers and when he came on board his request was that I could do my high performance job with SA Rugby and work with the Boks for the latter part of each season.
“With the Boks wanting me to settle down as their defence coach it would have been 2019, when my son would be almost ending his (education) so we thought if we don’t do it now we’d probably never do it.”
Nienaber arrived with no pre-conceived notions of what system he wanted to implement, insisting he was working with a blank sheet at Munster. He insisted there is no rocket science to his plan, it’s just a question of who you have at your disposal to implement it.
“I think if you look at what Munster have done in the past, I think the players would probably say it’s similar, a lot similar, just subtle changes will be where you put your emphasis or focus on.
"I think what I would bring, or would like to bring is a system that players... I’m all-inclusive, a defence system for me is an evolving organ. I can’t take the Boks’ system and put it on Munster because the players are different, skills sets are different.
“Their special attributes are different to the Boks, I couldn’t even take the same system I implemented at the Stormers to the Springboks.
"Even when I worked with the Sevens team, that’s a different skill set, so the key for me is to find out the skill set of players defensively, what are the special attributes that they have and try and incorporate that to the system and vision I’ve got in my head and try and excel at it and make it as successful as possible.”
For Nienaber, reputed to be a hard taskmaster who asks a lot his players in training, physicality in defence is a given, it’s more a matter of how the coach uses it.
“How can you get them in your system and into the optimal position to be as physical as possible? I believe movement into the best possible position will give you the best opportunity to exert your physicality.
"If your best position to exert your physicality is next to the ruck then I need to find a way within the system to get you there. If you are better on the outside edges of defence and that’s the area you can apply your physicality, then my job is to get you there.”
Nienaber also referenced the skill component, good tackle technique in the interests of player safety and injury prevention and added: “Other than that, it’s what you feel for the team. That’s what your defence displays most. Your work rate, work ethic, things you don’t normally see so much on attack.
"You see it more in defence, your attitude towards yourself, how personally you make it towards yourself, how personally you make it towards the team.”
Nienaber has taken his leap of faith. He now needs Munster’s players to follow suit.
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