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The 'bad thing' Nienaber has accepted about latest Springboks loss

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

You’d imagine that yet another Springboks defeat, the ninth in the 23-match reign of Jacques Nienaber, would be the cause for grave concern for the head coach ten months out from his country’s 2023 World Cup title defence, but there was no inkling of any emergency when the latest excuses were aired in Dublin on Saturday night.

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If there is pressure, Nienaber certainly wasn’t showing it as he sifted through his reflections on the 19-16 defeat to Ireland, the Springboks’ primary World Cup pool opponents next September in France.

Instead, his perspective in the media auditorium in the bowels of the Irish stadium was essentially ‘nothing to see here, now please shuffle along quietly’.

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History, after all, remains his trump card in this era of inconsistency, a sequence where his longest winning streak in charge remains three victories (it’s happened on two occasions) before another defeat laced with ample ifs, buts and maybes materialises, as was the case at Aviva Stadium.

In fairness, the history that Nienaber now repeatedly leans on is wholly impressive, the Springboks exorcising the ghosts of the early part of the Rassie Erasmus era to go and win the 2019 World Cup with Nienaber as the then-defence coach.

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It’s quite the uplifting yarn and it was quickly referenced by the now-head coach when asked if losing an Autumn Nations Series game to Ireland had any relevance regarding what might transpire when the two countries go head-to-head again at the World Cup. “No, I don’t think so. I think you learn a lot of it is good preparation and obviously, it builds momentum or it doesn’t build momentum,” he reasoned.

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“Ireland will go into the next games with a lot of momentum, but in 20-18 we lost 50 per cent of our games and you still win a World Cup. So when you lose your first pool match, history would say you can’t win a World Cup if you lose your first pool match. If you lose your first British and Irish Lions game you can’t win a series, but it is a myth.

“But obviously, it [winning] builds confidence, it builds momentum, it creates the opportunity to maybe be creative in terms of the development of your game, development of team selection if you build momentum. So that’s the bad thing, it takes that away so you almost have to consolidate again, you have got to get back in winning ways to try and build momentum again.”

That won’t come easy next weekend. France in Marseille certainly isn’t the gimme that the Springboks will likely enjoy versus Italy in game three of their four-match November tour and it will be curious what the reaction will be in South Africa if the result next Saturday goes against Nienaber and co and his record become ten losses in 24.

When their go-to reliables don’t work efficiently, their alternatives are rather bare. “Our lineouts can be better, our maul was stopped from the word go and then our scrum can do much better,” admitted skipper Siya Kolisi, jumping into the post-game conversation in Dublin unprompted during one Nienaber lull. “Normally we dominate in those instances and that is what Ireland were really good at, they came prepared, they knew our maul which is one of our key things.”

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Nienaber agreed. “They use their rolling maul quite well. They have scored against us, they scored against France, big teams, they scored against New Zealand twice, they have got a good rolling maul and they got an opportunity and they nailed it and we got a couple of opportunities that we didn’t nail. That pretty much shows that’s why they are No1 in the world, if they get a chance they capitalise.

“The reality is we played Ireland, who are No1 in the world, away from home and we lost by three points and we had a couple of opportunities that we didn’t use and they did. That is the reality. For us, we must take the learnings out of it and we have got one week and then we play France. We need to learn quickly, improve on the things we must improve. Some things will take time, some things won’t, but we need to make sure we fix the fixable things.”

One of those unfixable things is sadly likely to be Lood de Jager’s shoulder. He has an unfortunate history with it and while the extent of his latest setback won’t be determined until further medical assessment, his availability for the remainder of the tour is doubtful.

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