Jacques Nienaber is poised to take charge of world champions SA despite never playing first-team rugby nor being a head coach.
Now 47 years old, he was a loose forward for the fourth team at his Bloemfontein school and, after switching to inside centre, the third side at university.
As a coach, Nienaber has always been part of the backroom staff of departing Springbok boss Rassie Erasmus, working with him in SA and Ireland.
Nienaber was the Springboks defence coach when they won the World Cup a record-equalling third time in November 2019 by defeating England 32-12 in the final in Yokohama.
Erasmus quit as head coach after that triumph to concentrate on his role as director of SA rugby, which places him in charge of all national male and female teams.
Erasmus hastily assumed the head coach post in 2018 to speed up the revival of a SA team reduced to a laughing stock after a string of humiliating losses. He has made no secret of his admiration for Nienaber, a former physiotherapist and conditioning coach, who has worked with Erasmus for almost two decades.
“I began coaching almost immediately after retiring and immediately brought Jacques on board as the conditioning coach,” former Springbok loose forward Erasmus said.
“His passion, knowledge and work ethic around defence were evident from the start. Jacques deals brilliantly with people, getting messages across clearly.
“He is a wonderful person and, if chosen, would be a great replacement. From physiotherapist to Springboks head coach — what a story.”
The respect is mutual, with Nienaber describing as “great” a relationship that has taken them to the Cheetahs, Stormers, Munster and the Springboks.
“Our partnership does not end when we leave the rugby field — sometimes we have a meal and a drink together,” he said. “We sometimes disagree over tactics, but we share the same aim of making teams consistently successful.
“I first met Rassie when we were army conscripts and our rugby relationship began at university where he was the team captain and I was the physio.
“Rassie is a superb tactician and a great person to work with. It helps a lot that neither he nor I suffer from ego problems.”
That bond is set to continue as while Erasmus may have a new role, he has no intention of abandoning the Springboks.
“I definitely will not be sitting in an office giving instructions. When it comes to the Springboks, I will be hands-on and very close to the head coach.”
The expected elevation of Nienaber will be one of several changes to the coaching team as SA prepare to defend being ranked No 1 in the world.
Matthew Proudfoot, the Bok forwards coach at the World Cup, has taken a similar role with England. The other two assistants to Erasmus — Mzwandile Stick and Ireland-born Felix Jones — are expected to be offered new contracts.
Jones was a late addition as a consultant ahead of the World Cup and is now set to be given a full-time position. Deon Davids and Daan Human are possible newcomers as the Springboks prepare for a 12- or 13-Test season, starting with a July 4 home fixture against Scotland.
Davids is highly rated by Erasmus despite being sacked by the Southern Kings after they won only three of 42 Pro 14 matches over two seasons.
Former Springbok forward Human is part of the Bulls coaching staff and has been credited with turning Lizo Gqoboka and Trevor Nyakane into world-class props.
Asked when the new head coach would be named, an SA Rugby spokesperson said “soon”, without elaborating.