Nienaber | How a simple change turned Springboks into world champions

Nienaber | How a simple change turned Springboks into world champions
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A simple change in the way the Springboks processed their game plan information turned them from an average side in 2018, to world champions in 2019.

In an interview with, incoming Springbok coach Jacques Nienaber revealed how a small change in planning made a massive impact after the Bok management “screwed it up” in the way they implemented a transparent game plan to players during 2018.

The clarity demanded by modern Test rugby in understanding the approach and the amount of information that players have to digest during a test week has increased massively for each team and the Boks are no exception, especially when it comes to the analytical nature of then head coach Rassie Erasmus.

But to get that information across in a clear, concise way was an issue in 2018 for the team. And while it may sound overly simplistic, a little change brought clarity.

The inner workings of the team have not been so openly discussed before, and Nienaber shares valuable insight on how Erasmus’ call to have the Boks focus on “the main thing being the main thing” played a vital part in their victory in the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

White noise

“You can continue to analyse a lot, but when you start delivering you have to be crystal clear in what you want to get through. The biggest thing that Rassie got through to the players in the World Cup was clarity – there wasn’t white noise,” Nienaber says.

“There were only one or two things. The motto was, ‘let the main thing remain the main thing’. But the main thing could be 20 things, or it can be three things.

“The key is how you simplify it. Simplicity is the power. Having 100 things that are very important but then having the ability to narrow it down that you are prepared to put your life on these three things. These three things will win or lose us the game.

“So there are 97 things that you will cut out. Sometimes you get that wrong, and you lose Test matches because you get it wrong.

“We are naturally a very analytical coaching team but the one thing we get right is the way we can funnel it down to get to the niche. That doesn’t mean we are never going to lose games, sometimes we get it wrong and we lose games. I don’t think in our environment it will happen a lot.”

How the Boks got it wrong in 2018

Nienaber points to 2018, a season where the Boks beat New Zealand but fell back in terms of their own goals and how a small change in the way information was given to the players made a massive difference. But only after they realised how they had got it wrong.

“Where we got it wrong in 2018, is we used a system where ownership is key, and we sent too much information.

“On a Monday where the meeting is, say, about the kicking game, I would present the game plan on a PowerPoint presentation to the team and they will sit there. In 2018 we changed that so that the meeting went to the players the night before.

“In a kicking game what a nine looks at and wants to see is very different to what a one looks at and wants to see. The players had the luxury of watching those clips in their own personal space on their own devices. Luckily we have partners that actually gave us the luxury to do that.

“The next morning the players would come in and discuss it. It is an interactive environment, where the player can talk back to me. I’ve put the clips on and they have a look at it. Faf (de Klerk) will have a look and interact with me, as will Beast (Mtawarira) and Steven Kitshoff. So when we actually get to the meeting, it is not 30 minutes as in the past, it is five minutes.

“It is like ‘guys you’ve all watched it, Beast had a good point here and Handre (Pollard) came with that idea and what do you think about that?’

“But in 2018 we actually did it too much. We never controlled the amount of stuff we gave the players in the evening. I would put 10 minutes of kicking clips, Matt (Proudfoot) would put 15 minutes of lineouts on, Felix (Jones) would put 15 minutes of breakdowns. So on that Sunday evening, the players have over an hour of clips that he has to devour in his head. We got that horribly wrong.”

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Change in focus

So in 2019 a change was made and management were limited in how they were to present information to the players, and it provided a sharp focus and clarity that worked.

“In 2019 we periodized the information-sharing with the players, because it was too much. On a Monday, Jacques will put this on, and there is only 15 minutes of clips going on. Matt will have to wait until Tuesday while Jacques will not be allowed to put anything out on Tuesday.

“If you want to point out anything from Monday’s training in a review session, that must go out on Monday night and you’ve only got two minutes.

“It forced us to control the information and that is the nice thing. We might have too many meetings. It was like having a new toy – so you have the ability so you put up too many meetings. That is what happened to us in the way we coached and shared information in 2018. And we got it horribly wrong.

“But you adapt and you learn, improve and evolve and in 2019 it was a lot better. The benefit of getting shorter meetings and crystal clear meetings, players take ownership, give input and it is a transparent plan that goes out to the players.

“That is the solution we got in 2018, the problem with that solution was we overloaded the players with information – it was just too much. We streamlined it in 2019.

“I see technology as a good thing, that is where we are going and it is a good thing. But you will probably screw it up first before you get it right.”

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