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EXPLAINED: How the Springboks are selected

Ever wondered how the Springbok selectors assess the players before naming the team? With insight from head coach Jacques Nienaber, BokSquad takes a look at the process.

Jacques Nienaber - Springboks Coach
Image Copyright - Steve Haag Sports

Ever wondered how the Springbok selectors assess the players before naming the team? With insight from head coach Jacques Nienaber, BokSquad takes a look at the process.

Two women looking excitedly at cellphone

One of sport’s self-fulfilling prophecies is that the people whose teams never play on a given Saturday – the public and the media – have bulletproof confidence in how their teams can never lose. The irony is that these selections are often based on flimsy reasoning.

Some of us are partial to a bit of flash, so we pick a fantasy league side instead of an actual team. Others love their stats, so they stack up on a squad of lies, damn lies and, ahem, statistics. Then there’s the recency-bias crew, who can only pick a team from the United Rugby Championships finalists.

Yet when Springbok coach Jacques Nienaber named his 43-man squad to play Wales there would have been no shortage of people trying to second-guess his choices despite the fact that he put months into his selections.

Some time ago, Nienaber gave a glimpse into the painstaking process that goes into picking a Springbok side since he and director of rugby Rassie Erasmus were put in charge in 2018.

To gain an insight into how forensic the whole undertaking can be, it’s not too dissimilar to those gruelling five-round job interviews which also throw in psychometric testing and security background checks to identify a suitable candidate.

“Basically what we do is we build a profile of our players in the different fundamental areas of the game,” Nienaber explained.

“Taking a forward for example, it would be his scrums, lineout work, mauling work, ball-carries, breakdown work, tackles, off-the-ball work, and his involvement in the kicking game.

“More specifically, if it’s a tight-forward, that might be providing a base for the kickers to kick from. If it’s a loose-forward, it might be a second line of defence.

“If it’s a wing or centre, it might be contesting the ball. So wherever the player’s profile fits into our game plan, we build a profile on them.”

Nienaber said the database was typically built on the player’s previous four games and even further back if the player hasn’t had that consistent a run at his franchise, club or provincial team.

“After we’ve built a profile like that we discuss it as the coaches and write comments where we feel the player is and what we feel his pathway to the team is.

“Then we deliver the profile to the player where all of us [Nienaber, Erasmus, the assistant coaches and technical analyst Lindsay Weyer, who compiles the footage] have a discussion with him.

“Each of us provides the player with points out of five in terms of whether there is a gap between his profile and what we would like to see in the Bok team.

“For instance, if a guy has a one for breakdown work and we believe he needs between a four and a five to win a World Cup, there’s obviously a big gap between what we want and what he’s delivering for his team.”

The Bok coach was at pains to emphasise that a player scoring lowly on their “gap analysis” wasn’t necessarily due to incompetence. The systems employed by his team could be responsible for the lower rating.

That said, the Bok management team still takes on the responsibility of addressing said differences.

“We discuss that with the player, and then afterwards we intervene. When we discuss the player’s profile, we tell him what we saw and they ask questions and take notes in that meeting.

“We also show the guys best practice clips of Springboks and the difference between Test rugby and the competition they’re playing in.

“So, if we give guys a one or three out of five, we highlight those players when they come into camp with us and we do extensive work with them.”

If all this sounds a little like a performance appraisal where you get marked down from the moment you sit down for the assessment, far from it.

“The player must pick up what we feel is his point of difference, why we’re talking to him in the first place,” Nienaber explained.

“It’s not a negative thing, he needs to know what it is that he’s doing well that we like.

“The important thing is for the player to understand after the meeting what his point of difference is and where the gaps in his performance profile are. Then he has to provide us with a work-on sheet where he says ‘this is my point of difference, this is my gap analysis and this is what I think I need to do to negate that gap’.”

Interestingly, a player who feels his point of difference hasn’t had a look-in by way of selection has the right to forward the Bok brains trust his own clips and ask for a sit down meeting to gain a sense of why he’s not being considered.

Nienaber said the Bok management team made sure to keep the player’s coaches in the loop by copying them in the emails between them and the player, especially seeing that sometimes they sent players drills to help bridge the gap before they got to the Springbok camp.

Having begun the process with a “World Cup” squad of 30 to 40 in 2018, Nienaber said they merely assess the player profiles of the players still in their system now to see if the players have improved or whether “bad habits are creeping in”, while they continue to churn out new ones for those they’re considering.

As an example of how the picture is constantly changing, former Bok forwards coach Matt Proudfoot once said Erasmus – when still the Bok head coach – would encourage his coaches to update the hierarchy of the players in their departments.

“He tells me on a daily basis to rate my pack and where I think they are in the pecking order,” said Proudfoot at the time.

This is all a little more intensive than putting together a fantasy league team.

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