The hotel in Toulon that hosted the Springboks for much of the Rugby World Cup is a regular base for professional rugby teams, and a spokesperson commented in the French media that he had never seen a “tighter” group than Jacques Nienaber’s 2023 champions.
A chain is indeed only as strong as its weakest link, and this “tightness” of the Bok squad was the first explanation Nienaber gave for his team winning back-to-back World Cups.
He said jealousy had long ago been wiped out in the squad, and only players who understood that the team came way before personal egos were going to make the cut when the squad was picked in August.
“Let me explain by giving you an example of what I am talking about,” Nienaber said this week shortly after the team had landed in Johannesburg.
Horses for courses
“For the quarter-final against France, we opted for a 5-3 split with Manie Libbok and Cobus Reinach as our halfbacks.
“They started again in the semi-final against England, but for the final, we decided our best tactic would be 7-1. That meant they fell completely out of the match 23.
“Their hearts were broken – nobody likes to lose their place – but I promise you when they trained that Monday afternoon (the team had been announced internally that morning), Cobus was the best version of Aaron Smith and Manie the best of Richie Mo’unga, because they had studied their profiles and mannerisms.
“That is the beauty of this team. The guys quickly get over their disappointment because they know that to sulk is to bring down the team.
“They had to take on a different role altogether – their role was to be the opposition, and ensure the guys taking their place in the starting line-up had the best possible preparation.”
Nienaber added the example of Marvin Orie, who only played one-and-a-half games, but never dropped his head.
“Marvin was brilliant throughout the tournament. Before the England semi-final, his role was to prep Eben (Etzebeth). Marvin was Maro Itoje before the semi, he worked up Eben brilliantly before that one.”
Looking beyond the players, the Boks have a strong family environment, and where some teams do not permit wives and partners in the team environment, Nienaber and Rassie Erasmus encourage it.
“When you have a squad of 33 players and their partners and kids, it can be easy for the partner to get jealous when their man has not been selected – but it never happened,” the coach said
“The wives and partners of the players left out would pick up the pieces. They didn’t become envious and allow a rift to develop.
“They led the party, they made it fun. That is the strength of this group of unbelievable people.”