Seven tries conceded in 13 tests goes a long way to explaining why South Africa are currently at number one in the World Rugby Men’s Rankings and sitting on top of The Rugby Championship 2021 table.
Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber’s job titles may have changed since the Springboks lifted the Webb Ellis Cup for the third time back in November 2019, but the defensive systems put in place by the pair are just as effective now as they were then and have been honed over a long period of time.
The pair first met in the army before crossing paths at the Free State's Varsity team where Nienaber was the physiotherapist and Erasmus the captain.
When Erasmus was appointed coach of the Cheetahs, he chose Nienaber to be strength and conditioning coach, with the latter later taking charge of the defence.
Nienaber followed Erasmus to the Stormers and also Munster in Ireland before they were reunited again with the Springboks in 2018.
Heart and commitment
If anything, South Africa have become better and better defensively since Nienaber was promoted from defence coach to head coach when Erasmus moved ‘upstairs’ to take on the Director of Rugby role, after RWC 2019.
“In my last year playing at Western Province, Rassie was the coach and Jacques was the defensive coach and that was the first time I saw coaches spend as much time on defence as they do on attack,” said former Springbok AJ Venter.
“They would always have a generic base of defence but. for every team, they would be able to adapt it accordingly.”
Venter’s relationship with Nienaber stretches back 25 years – to the time the loose forward played with the Free State Cheetahs U21s where Nienaber was the physio.
“There is no one with more heart and commitment than him. The hours he puts in is just phenomenal.
“He is an absolute professor of analysing teams and then putting that in place on the field.
“Jacques has a brilliant ability to see defensive patterns and is able to transfer that to players. He is on the field, in the defensive line, when they train.”
You have to go back to Scott Barrett’s surging 25-metre run in New Zealand’s 23-13 win against South Africa at the start of Rugby World Cup 2019 – an incredible 1,113 minutes – to find a try scored by a player against the Springboks carrying the ball more than five metres other than from a maul.
Only two of the seven tries conceded in that time have been scored by backs – Josh Adams (Wales) and George Bridge (New Zealand).
As the British and Irish Lions know only too well from their 2-1 series defeat and Argentina recently discovered in back-to-back Rugby Championship losses, any try against the Springboks has to be hard won.
There is total buy-in, from the smallest players – Cheslin Kolbe and Faf de Klerk biting in and cutting off the passing lanes – to the big men like Eben Etzebeth and Franco Mostert who produce the big hits when the opposition is forced back inside.
Again, Venter is under no illusions where the credit lies.
“You can be a good analytical coach and understand the game really well but if you don’t have the respect of the players you are going to find it really hard to get it right,” he said
“I have played with Rassie and been coached by him. We started playing together at the Free State – me, him and Andre Venter were the loose forwards.
“Rassie is one of the few coaches in my career that has got the ability to have 30 players in his squad happy. And Jacques has learnt that from Rassie.”