The fabulous backroom boys - South Africa

Rugby News Service profiles the unsung heroes on the coaching support staff who have helped Rassie Erasmus lead South Africa to the Rugby World Cup final.

TOKYO, 31 Oct - South Africa head coach Rassie Erasmus has always been quick to give credit where it is due and that means a pat on the back for the support staff who cover his back.

Erasmus became a coach soon after he stopped playing about 15 years ago and immediately teamed up with his old army friend Jacques Nienaber, a qualified physio. Nienaber started as conditioning coach and is now the Springboks' defence coach. 

"He’s very good with people and in terms of communicating what he wants. He gets the message across brilliantly," said Erasmus.

There is a high level of mutual respect between Erasmus and his backroom staff. So who are the Boks' backroom?

Jacques Nienaber – defence coach

He is the right-hand man of Springbok head coach Rassie Erasmus, with whom he has walked a long road in rugby, from the Cheetahs right up to the Springboks, via the Stormers and then Munster in Ireland, having first met in the army. 

Nienaber made the extraordinary transition from physiotherapist to defence coach once he joined Western Province and the Stormers for the 2008 Super Rugby season. 

“We are friends for a long time, but as we always say, whenever there is a rugby decision that needs to be discussed, sometimes we disagree and we get angry at each other,” Nienaber says about his connection with Erasmus.

“But it’s never personal – it’s always to make the team better. We’ve got a good relationship in terms of that. We are friends on the one side, but also that Rassie is my boss – we can have a drink together, but when we have to make decisions about rugby, we don’t have egos of accepting the route we want to take.” 

Nienaber, who had previously worked in rugby as a physiotherapist and then conditioning coach at the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein, is 47. He became a defence guru while at the Stormers, who became renowned for their ability to shut out teams with their tackling. 

He took up his Springboks role 18 months ago. South Africa have conceded an average of 11 points per game in 2019, and have the best defensive record at RWC 2019.

Matthew Proudfoot – forwards coach

South African-born Proudfoot is a former tight-head prop who played four tests for Scotland between 1998 and 2003, having qualified through a Scottish grandfather. 

He first worked with Erasmus at the Stormers in Cape Town, where he moulded a young pack into one of the most efficient in Super Rugby. They reached the final in 2010 and semi-finals in 2011 and 2012. 

A number of the current Bok forwards have come through Proudfoot’s hands – Steven Kitshoff, Bongi Mbonambi, Frans Malherbe, Vincent Koch, Eben Etzebeth, captain Siya Kolisi, Duane Vermeulen and Francois Louw. 

The 47-year-old first made his name as a coach at North-West University’s Pukke team, before getting his big break in 2008 when he was appointed as the forwards coach for Western Province and then Stormers. 

He was the right-hand man of former Springbok coach Allister Coetzee at the Stormers, followed Coetzee to the Kobe Steelers in Japan in 2015, and returned with him to become the Springbok forwards coach in 2016. 

He is married to South Africa international netball player Vanes-Mari du Toit. 

Mzwandile Stick – specialist skills

Having played provincial rugby for Eastern Province mainly as a full-back, Stick made his name in the international arena as a sevens specialist.

He captained the Springbok sevens team to their first World Sevens Series title in the 2008-09 season and was famous for kicking a number of crucial drop goals for the Blitzboks.

He started coaching in 2013 with Eastern Province junior teams in Port Elizabeth and was soon promoted to an assistant coach with the Southern Kings in Super Rugby.

Stick was granted his first coaching opportunity with the Springboks in 2016 as part of Allister Coetzee’s management team and was then moved to the South Africa U20 side as an assistant coach in 2017.

After Erasmus’s appointment as South Africa coach early in 2018, Stick returned to the national team as a specialist skills coach, with a special emphasis on fielding the high ball and off-the-ball skills. He also works closely with the backs. 

Felix Jones – attack consultant

Former Ireland full-back Jones made his name in professional rugby at Munster from 2009 onwards, and eventually made his test debut in 2011. He was ruled out of RWC 2011 with an ankle problem, and in 2015 he was forced to retire with a neck injury, aged 28.

Jones then became a technical coach with Munster, graduating to the backs coach position and working with Erasmus as well as the Ireland national team alongside Joe Schmidt.

When backline coach Swys de Bruin left the Springbok set-up earlier this year due to health reasons, Erasmus called on Jones as a consultant for the Rugby World Cup, "knowing that we would probably play Scotland or Ireland or England".

Erasmus said: "I coached with Felix at Munster for almost two years – I know how good he is. The analysis he does on individual players and defensive structures is really phenomenal.” 

RNS am/js