JOHANNESBURG • Jacques Nienaber is poised to take charge of world champions South Africa this month despite never playing first-team rugby or being a head coach.
He was a loose forward for the fourth team at his Bloemfontein school and, after switching to inside centre, the third side at university.
As a coach, the 47-year-old has always been part of the backroom staff of departing Springboks boss Rassie Erasmus, working with him in South Africa and Ireland for almost two decades.
He was the Boks defence coach when they won the World Cup a record-equalling third time last November by defeating England 32-12 in the final in Japan.
Erasmus, also 47, quit as head coach after that to concentrate on his South African director of rugby role. And he has made no secret of his admiration for Nienaber, a former physiotherapist and conditioning coach.
"I began coaching almost immediately after retiring and immediately brought Jacques on board as the conditioning coach," former Boks loose forward Erasmus said.
"His passion, knowledge and work ethic around defence were evident from the start. Jacques deals brilliantly with people, getting messages across clearly.
"He is a wonderful person and, if chosen, would be a great replacement. From physiotherapist to Springboks head coach - what a story."
The respect is mutual, with Nienaber describing the "great" relationship that has taken them to the Free State Cheetahs, Western Stormers, Munster and the Springboks.
"Our partnership does not end when we leave the rugby field. Sometimes we have a meal and a drink together," he said. "We sometimes disagree over tactics, but we share the same aim of making teams consistently successful.
"I first met Rassie when we were army conscripts and our rugby relationship began at university where he was the team captain and I was the physio. Rassie is a superb tactician and a great person to work with. It helps a lot that neither he nor I suffer from ego problems."
That bond is set to continue, as Erasmus has no intention of abandoning the Springboks despite having a new role.
"I definitely will not be sitting in an office giving instructions. I will be hands-on and very close to the head coach," he said.
Asked when the new head coach would be named, a South Africa Rugby spokesman said "soon" without elaborating.