The unique culture that set the Boks apart
FROM CLINICIAN TO COACH: Watch this insightful discussion with newly appointed Springbok coach Jacques Nienaber.
Professor Jon Patricios, the former team doctor of Boks and the founder/Director of Sports Concussion South Africa, speaks to Nienaber about how he went from a clinician to coach and what makes the national rugby team the success it is.
Despite being a qualified physiotherapist, Nienaber now stays clear of medical issues, but uses his insights into medicine to help him in his coaching career.
He subscribes to the Springbok mantra of ‘staying in your lane’ and leaves the medical issues to the appointed staff.
Nienaber reveals that while everybody gives input, because the Bok team is not an environment for ‘head nodders’ – the archetypical ‘yes men’ – each person remains responsible for his own ‘department’.
And most significantly he revealed what has become a tangible, ‘no rules’ culture in the team that played such a big part in winning the Webb Ellis Cup in Japan last year.
He made it clear the culture in the Bok team is not some ‘pie in the sky’ philosophy that is written somewhere in a team room as a ‘feel good’ factor.
“When we started in 2018, we did not sit down and say: ‘What must the Springbok culture be?’,” Nienaber told Patricios.
“We started working with the players from the understanding that a culture is something that will develop.
“You can write down certain things on your [culture] wishlist, but it is not necessary that it would manifest itself. You don’t know if you have those type of players [for a specific culture].
“We did it differently. Trying a new defence system, getting skinned on the edge, having two wings playing in their first Test, [we realised] a refusal to be defeated was just something this team had from the outset.
“Later on, you can say [to a new player], if you don’t have that characteristic in you [not to be defeated], you will not fit into this group, because this group has that [inherent characteristic].”
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Nienaber pointed out that other teams will sit down for a brainstorm, get somebody in and then write things down.
Those will include goals like trust, they must have energy, or they will refuse to lie down.
“Those are all nice words, but it will not necessarily manifest itself in a team,”the Bok coach said.
“Once you start working with a team and you give it time to evolve on its own, you will be able to pull out certain aspects that you can see, visually, that this team has got it.
“It is not something that is a ‘pie in the sky’, they [the players] do have it.
“Then you can say: ‘You know we have this.’
“We are going to live up to this, because it is part of our culture.
“We didn’t sit down and discuss what type of culture we want to have.
“The culture we had, there wasn’t rules. Most teams normally have a fines system – where players are punished for being late or wearing the wrong clothes.
“We had none of that. If you were late for a meeting and own up, saying: ‘I overslept’. That is understandable.
“We wanted to treat the players as adults.
“If you come late three times or four times, then maybe the Springbok environment is not that important to you. If it was important to you, you would have been on time.
“We said: ‘We are all adults here.’ If you late, you late. If it happens regularly, then it is not that important to you.
“From the outset, that was different, something that [Director of Rugby and former coach] Rassie [Erasmus] brought in.
“The fact is, we wanted to treat the players as adults.”
He said they were also very transparent and open to the idea of having families around.
“There is no right, or wrong way. It is just the way we did things and it works for this particular group.
“We have a few older players in our team, with families and children. At the World Cup we had our families there and they were allowed within the team environment. They ate breakfast with the players.
“The nicest thing [was], when you walk into the dining area, there were children running around and it was all normal.”
He said at most other teams the wives weren’t allowed to stay in the same hotel as where the team stayed.
“Again, I stress, there is no right or wrong. The other teams did if differently and it worked for them. We were all about inclusivity. We wanted to make it as family-friendly as possible.”
* Jon Patricios is founder and Director of Sports Concussion South Africa, sports concussion consultant to South African Rugby Union, written the concussion protocols for the BokSmart injury prevention programme is and member of the World Rugby Concussion Advisory Group, a board member of the International Concussion in Sports Group and has served on tribunals for the South African Institute for Drug Free Sport.