JOHANNESBURG (AFP) - Jacques Nienaber is poised to take charge of world champions South Africa this month despite never playing first-team rugby nor being a head coach.
Now 47 years old, 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, Nienaber has always been part of the backroom staff of departing Springboks boss Rassie Erasmus, working with him in South Africa and Ireland.
Nienaber was the defence coach of the Springboks when they won the World Cup a record-equalling third time last November by defeating England 32-12 in the final in Yokohama.
Erasmus quit as head coach post after that triumph to concentrate on his South African director of rugby role, which places him in charge of all national male and female teams.
He hastily assumed the head coach post in 2018 to speed up the revival of a South African team reduced to a laughing stock after a string of humiliating losses.
He has made no secret of his admiration for Nienaber, a former physiotherapist and conditioning coach, who has worked with Erasmus for almost two decades.
"I began coaching almost immediately after retiring and immediately brought Jacques on board as the conditioning coach," former Springbok loose forward Erasmus told AFP.
"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 a "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 told AFP. "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 may have a new role, but has no intention of abandoning the Springboks.
"I definitely will not be sitting in an office giving instructions. When it comes to the Springboks, I will be hands-on and very close to the head coach."
The expected elevation of Nienaber will be one of several changes to the coaching team as South Africa prepare to defend being ranked No. 1 in the world.