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The message on the Leinster wall Nienaber has already taken to heart

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Harry Murphy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

Jacques Nienaber has dived straight into work at Leinster and already put his hand up to take the blame for two of the three tries the Irish province conceded in their hard-fought URC derby win at Connacht last Saturday.

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The former Springboks head coach flew into Dublin last week to begin his new role as senior coach under Leo Cullen, a job he agreed to take on last April before his 2023 international season got going with South Africa and culminated in October’s Rugby World Cup final win over the All Blacks in Paris.

Leinster were left reliant on an 81st-minute try from Ciaran Frawley to snatch a 24-22 victory in Galway from the jaws of defeat. Ahead of next Sunday’s Champions Cup trip to La Rochelle, Nienaber has now given his first media briefing and in explaining how he can’t simply copy and paste the defensive system successfully employed by South Africa, he took responsibility for two of the Connacht tries scored by David Hawkshaw and Diarmuid Kilgallen.

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“I can definitely adapt to Leinster,” began the coach who previously worked in Ireland as the Munster defence coach from June 2016 through to November 2017 when he returned home to South Africa with Rassie Erasmus to revive the Springboks.

“I don’t think you can copy and paste the system, any tackle-defence system from one team to another one because what makes the system is the athleticism that you have available within your squad and the skill set you have available within your squad and obviously the skill set and athleticism that South Africa has versus what Leinster have differs.

“So you have a general broad way of how you would like to do things but you have to be able to evolve and adapt with the group that you are working with. Currently where I am now is trying to find out what skill set and athleticism we have in the group and how we can utilise it in a system I have got in my head.

“If you just copy and paste you might end up putting certain players in a box when they have a specific skill set and now you put them in a box and they can’t utilise that skill set in a game, so one must be very careful of (not) just going, ‘This is how we are going to do things’.

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“Where it will probably be frustrating for the fans, for the players and for us (as coaches) is evolution comes with sometimes success and sometimes with failure and that’s how you evolve and that’s how you learn what the group will be able to do.

“I read it actually on the wall within this environment. Somebody made a statement that said, ‘Evolution comes sometimes with failure’ and that is where we are currently. We failed in two instances last weekend from a defensive point of view and those failures were probably up to me.

“The first and the last try was definitely due to them [the Leinster players] trying to adapt to a new system and a new way of doing things and it will take them some time to get used to it and it will take me time to get used to them. So no, it won’t be a case of copy and paste. You will have to evolve with the team.”

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Poorfour 4 hours ago
The AI advantage: How the next two Rugby World Cups will be won

AI models are really just larger and less transparent variants of the statistical models that have been in use since Moneyball was invented. And a big difference between the Icahn centre’s results and AI today is that ChatGPT-like Large Language Models can explain (to some degree) how they reached their conclusions. In terms of what impact they will have, I suspect it will have two primary impacts: 1) It will place a premium on coaching creativity 2) It will lead to more selections that baffle fans and pundits. Analysts will be able to run the models both ways: they will see their own team’s and players’ weaknesses and strengths as well as the opposition’s. So they will have a good idea at what the other team will be targeting and the decisive difference may well be which coaches are smart enough to think of a gameplan that the other side didn’t identify and prepare for. For players, it places a premium on three key things: 1) Having a relatively complete game with no major weaknesses (or the dedication to work on eliminating them) 2) Having the tactical flexibility to play a different game every week 3) Having a point of difference that is so compelling that there isn’t a defence for it. (3) is relatively rare even among pro players. There have been only a handful of players over the years where you knew what they were going to do and the problem was stopping it - Lomu would be the classic example. And even when someone does have that, it’s hard to sustain. Billy Vunipola in his prime was very hard to stop, but fell away quite badly when the toll on his body began to accumulate. So coaches will look for (1) - a lack of exploitable weaknesses - and (2) - the ability to exploit others’ weaknesses - ahead of hoping for (3), at least for the majority of the pack. Which is likely to mean that, as with the original Moneyball, competent, unshowy players who do the stuff that wins matches will win out over outrageous talents who can’t adapt to cover their own weaknesses. Which will leave a lot of people on the sidelines sputtering over the non-inclusion of players whose highlights reels are spectacular, but whose lowlight reels have been uncovered by AI… at least until the point where every fan has access to a sporting analysis AI.

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