Jacques Nienaber needs a hug

After the basic requirements of physiological and safety concerns, the need for love and a sense of belonging are most important to an individual’s happiness.

This theory was proposed by the American psychologist Abraham Maslow who, in 1943, formulated a hierarchy of needs. It’s a given we need food, water, shelter and sleep to survive. After that we need access to health care, personal security and financial assurance. From there it becomes a little complicated.

Jacques Nienaber is learning this the hard way. He’d have to lose every game between now and next year’s World Cup by a cricket score to get shunted from his post, so his job at least is safe for now. With the Springboks closing their wagons and embracing their newfound status as the least liked team in world rugby, Nienaber appears to have won the trust of his players and support staff from him.

Video Spacers
Video Spacers

Their rhetoric conveys a survival instinct where any dissenting voice is either dismissed or treated as a threat. Either way, it seems to be a galvanized group.

Nienaber has the love of those closest to him. He’s said that he is not concerned with the opinions of outsiders. But observing Nienaber over the last month or so, the thing he seems to need most of all is a big hug and a wave of reassuring words.

That may be the projected nonsense of a columnist morphing a molehill into a mountain. Then again, would anyone blame him if he was feeling a little self conscious? Would any of us be pulling on the Springboks training tracksuit today and feel nothing but unbridled confidence? You’d have to be a little bit of a narcissist to be completely devoid of doubt in this climate.

Let’s start at the top. He was given the keys to an award-winning race car having only ridden shotgun his entire life. This is his first experience of him as a head coach. Jake White, the 2007 World Cup winning coach, began his journey with a high school team. He graduated along the way, working through junior representative sides and provincial set-ups before being handed the top job. If he was a General in an army his uniform would be drooping with medals collected from scores of successful campaigns and operations.

Nienaber’s path has been different. He had to learn to grow in the shade cast by Rassie Erasmus who was bumped upstairs to South Africa’s director of rugby after completing a dramatic 18-month overhaul, turning the Springboks from chumps to champs.

After that triumph in Japan in 2019, Nienaber was promoted. Why? Because he had worked alongside Erasmus from the time they served in the military of apartheid South Africa? Because he represented a continuation of Erasmus’ master plan? Perhaps there’s some logic in that but it’s hard not to view Nienarber’s appointment by him as something akin to cronyism. In any other context more red flags would have been raised.

Not that we should be too critical of Nienaber for taking the job. The Springboks were world champions. They had the most dominant pack in the world and a settled backline. It was a dream gig. Anyone with a functioning frontal lobe would have taken it.

Except it’s never felt like his team. Not really. Across the 22 games he’s coached – for a win record of 63.6% – a commentator, analyst or journalist has needed reminding that Erasmus isn’t actually steering the wheel. One wonders if Nienaber has ever mistakingly introduced himself as Erasmus’s deputy at a dinner party.

It wouldn’t be entirely inconceivable. With Erasmus hogging attention like an inside center who refuses to pass, the former coach has loomed largest over the post-World Cup Boks. Videos, Twitter rants, coded messages to the press, a blockbuster interview with the Daily Mail, sanctions, bans, fines, tackle bags, documentaries… the Erasmus show has been brilliant theatre. If they made a musical starring Hugh Jackman with a score by Lin-Manuel Miranda they’d sell out around the world.

Still in the shade, Nienaber has been forced to grow as best he can. He’s largely used the same team as the one that secured a third World Cup crown, but he has developed a handful of players that will be key at the next tournament. Damian Willemse, Jasper Wiese, Kurt-Lee Arendse and Jaden Hendrikse have all stepped up under Nienaber’s guiding hand and he deserves credit for bolstering the squad’s depth.

It’s difficult to tell how much influence he has had on the team’s tactical transformation, though Willie le Roux, Willemse and, most recently, Manie Libbok have shown glimpses of a more coherent attack with ball in hand. If we’re going to damn Nienaber for the team’s faults then we should also praise him for what is clearly a positive sign.

If only he had more room to talk about the tweaks on the training pitch. Or the experiments he’s considered or the alterations to his line-up. Has he invited a motivational speaker into the camp? Has he taken his charges on a grueling mountain hike to foster team unity?

It would be great to know. Instead, we’ve had to watch him uncomfortably answer questions about Erasmus, about the Springboks’ brand image, about the energy that the leaping antelope sends to referees.

Nienaber has spoken like a man under siege because, in many ways, he is one. What’s unfortunate is that this is not a consequence of anything he has said or done, but because he’s portrayed as little more than a side character in the Erasmus saga.

A win on Saturday would help silence the critics. A star performance from one of the newer players will advance the claim that this is indeed his team. However they get it done, a victory now seems imperative after losses to Ireland and France. The self doubt and insecurity won’t go away if Nienaber returns home from Europe with only a win against Italy.

If his team does lose, as most expect them to, and he attends a post-match press conference stuffed with questions about Erasmus and the Springboks image, he might well need a hug.

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