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Jake White: 'You're not a national coach to learn lessons'

By Jake White
South Africa Head Coach Jacques Nienaber looks on during the pre match warm up ahead of the Autumn Nations Series match between England and South Africa at Twickenham Stadium on November 20, 2021 in London, England. (Photo by Craig Mercer/MB Media/Getty Images)

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Making 14 changes obviously didn’t work for the Springboks and personally, I think Jacques Nienaber missed a trick. There’s an expectation that you win every time you play in South African colours and the margins in Test rugby are incredibly small. What I’m expecting on Saturday is massive amounts of pressure that he didn’t need.

I’m told his rationale for picking that second Test team was because he wanted that group of players to know what it was like to win a Series, he didn’t want them to just be playing a dead rubber in the Third Test. To answer that, I’d say I don’t think there should ever be a dead rubber test when you’re playing at home. The job of a national coach is to win Test matches. National coaches shouldn’t use Tests to see if players are good enough, that what A-sides or training is for. I don’t know if Nienaber picked that team on his own, he may have discussed it with Rassie and others but you’re not a national coach to learn lessons. You learn that at age-grade or club level – I mean that sincerely – there’s a reason people go through a system to become national coach.

I’ve coached in France, and yes, mixing it up works there but that’s simply not us. Nienaber could have won the Series and now he’s created a real cauldron in Cape Town. It’s at sea level, and the Welsh will be boosted by the fact they’ve contested Tests on the highveld.

In my experience, the most successful Springbok coaches keep the best teams together. Nick Mallett, myself or Rassie Erasmus in 2019. It’s always been that way. Look at Sir Clive Woodward. Before he named the team, you knew that Greenwood and Tindall would be in midfield, Back, Dallaglio and Hill would be in the backrow and Johnson and Grewcock would be in the engine room.

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South Africa’s center Jesse Kriel (R) reacts while being tackled by Wales’ full-back Liam Williams (C) during an international rugby union match between South Africa and Wales at the Toyota Stadium in Bloemfontein on July 9, 2022. (Photo by PHILL MAGAKOE / AFP) (Photo by PHILL MAGAKOE/AFP via Getty Images)

So, what will Nienaber have learnt? Well firstly he’ll also know two weeks is insufficient time to prepare a side for a Test Series. Also, I know some commentators were saying it’s a case of seeing if some players were good enough to play at that level but I don’t buy that. The selectors will have had years to put that team together. For example, they asked Joseph Dweba to come back to SA. Why would you do that if you didn’t think he was good enough? Why force him to come back and play domestic rugby, if you didn’t think he was up to it.

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Whoever comes out on top wins the Series, and Wales had never won a game, let alone a Series on South African soil a week ago. Wales will come brimming with confidence. I’ve coached against them, and the one thing they don’t do is go away. I remember they lost the Test by a point in Nelspruit, where if it wasn’t for a high tackle, they could have won it. Test matches against Wales have been close for some time. It was only a piece of Duane Vermeulen magic, where he popped a ball out the back to Fourie Du Preez at the 2015 Rugby World Cup that stopped the game going belly up. The 2019 Rugby World Cup semi-final was a three pointer, thanks to Francois Louw winning a key turnover.

Going back to selection, when Sir Gareth Edwards, one of the greatest players of all time, said it was a slap in the face, I can’t believe it wasn’t a real motivation for the Welsh team.

For Saturday’s Test, I see Nienaber has gone back to the team he thinks will serve him well. Six forwards on the bench, two backs. The biggest, heaviest side he can muster. Ahead of France, I don’t think there will be too much of a departure from what’s been working for them in the past few years. In fact, I think it’s obvious they are going do to exactly the same thing they did in Japan, but one of the things I’ve learnt as I’ve got older is that if you try to repeat the same feat again and again, it doesn’t work.

In 1991, the Wallabies won the World Cup under Bob Dwyer and they tried the same thing in 1995 and came unstuck. There were a lot of critics who said you can’t just copy and paste what you achieved in a previous World Cup. It was the same with the All Blacks in 1987, and they lost in 1991 to the Wallabies.

Performance-wise, I thought Faf de Klerk was really poor in the First Test and now he’s been benched. When he’s really good, it’s easy to play at fly-half, but when he’s off his game, it’s very difficult and I actually think Elton got a raw deal. Granted, he wasn’t great, but he wasn’t looked after that well, people who watch the game would understand that. The one area I think the Boks should be concerned, whether it’s Elton (Jantjies) or Handre (Pollard), is having a reliable goal-kicker. To win World Cups you’re going to need a Percy Montgomery or a Jonny Wilkinson. Morne Steyn is too old to do it, so it is a worry.

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South Africa’s center Jesse Kriel (L) jumps to fight for the ball with Wales’ centre George North (R) during an international rugby union match between South Africa and Wales at the Toyota Stadium in Bloemfontein on July 9, 2022. (Photo by PHILL MAGAKOE / AFP) (Photo by PHILL MAGAKOE/AFP via Getty Images)

Wales won’t make changes to a winning team. With consistency comes confidence. It’s backs to the wall for the Boks add if they don’t get the proper game going, they could lose the Series.

Perhaps they’ve missed Duane Vermeulen’s leadership, because I imagine he’ll definitely come back into the set-up when he’s recovered.

Admittedly, while not everything has been plain sailing for the Springboks, down in New Zealand, the All Blacks are under pressure too. Watching the game, I saw a Leinster team on fire. I think every coach in the world would want to play like Leinster in attack and the Crusaders in defence. When they’re on song, it doesn’t matter who you are, Ireland will open you up. That first try Andrew Porter scored at the beginning of the game is one of the best Test tries you’ll see as a collective. The way they set that thing up and everyone touched the ball was incredible. It’s not so much what the All Blacks got wrong but about how good Ireland were and how comfortable they are with each other.

One thing I’d say is you can’t underestimate that familiarity. That’s what the best sides have; they are always together. When the Wallabies have been on form, they have 15-odd Brumbies playing, when the All Blacks were in their pomp they’d have a majority of Crusaders playing, or look at Wales in 2008 with 13 Ospreys. It’s difficult for sides who are unfamiliar with each other to turn it on without spending time together. Preparation time is key.

People often ask me about the influence of the URC and whether it will benefit the Boks further down the line. What I’d say is that a lot of the guys playing for the Boks are already playing in the French and English leagues. Lood (De Jager) and Faf came from Sale, and Handre was in France, and will move to Leicester, so I think there has already been a lot of intellectual property sharing, which gives confidence.

On the flip side, your players are on show every time they play offshore. Rich owners get to see first-hand if you have a superstar in your ranks. How can you compete with a millionaire who wants to get his chequebook out and buy your marquee player? We’ll be in the Heineken Cup next season, as well, so it has benefits, but also risks.

Slowly we may get players back to the URC. They’d prefer to be playing at home rather than playing in Glasgow, for example. The money is the differentiator, so it comes down to personal choice. I find that more and more, the age group that disappears to Europe for a few years in their mid-twenties often has kids away and that’s when their grandparents say, ‘listen we’d love you to come home now.’ There will always be those guys who will chase the honey pot and go to places like Japan, and I have no issue with that.

For now, I cannot wait for this weekend in Cape Town, the atmosphere will be electric.

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