Nel determined to breathe new life into Rotherham

Titans coach determined to build on fine start to mountainous task as World Cup hero returns for Falcons
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The Independent Online

Judging by his CV Steph Nel has kept St Jude, the Patron Saint of lost causes, on his toes throughout the last 15 years.

That coaching career has seen Nel direct, among others, no-hopers Northern Free State in his native country, Ireland's perennial Aunt Sallies, Connacht, and now the genial South African is at Rotherham. And Rotherham are at the bottom of the Zurich Premiership. "I know St Jude very well," he jokes.

Does he have a streak of morbid masochism running through him? Is he a glutton for punishment? The answer is simple. "No, I think I am more a glutton for coaching." He has to be, because taking on struggling sides like this trio, demands a hell of a lot of the coaching staff. Having worked wonders abroad where Nel, 36, turned things around first at Northern Free State, so that they were taken more seriously in the Currie Cup competition, before creating a competitive force out of Connacht, not just domestically and in the Celtic League, but, more significantly, in Europe, he is now looking to repeat the feat in the South Riding.

What faces him, though, is nothing short of mountainous. Until Nel took over officially three weeks ago things had looked bleaker than a midwinter's day for the South Yorkshire club. Rotherham had not earned a single Premiership point in 11 matches, they had also been knocked out of the Powergen Cup and did not even bother about the Parker Pen Challenge Cup, losing both legs to the French club Narbonne.

But Nel is a dogged and determined man. He knows what lies ahead and he says: "This is the biggest challenge of my career to date. It is going to be like climbing Mount Everest." And the man must have something about him because last weekend, the 12th round of the Premiership, brought London Irish to Millmoor for what they must have thought would be a routine away win, an impression reinforced as they ran in a modest 15 points in the first half. A Rotherham defeat looked a certainty.

But St Jude must have been keeping half an eye on proceedings and in the second half Rotherham finally took a tentative step towards self-respect by scoring 10 unanswered themselves. OK, so they still lost the match 15-10, but they had won half the game and had emerged with a precious bonus point for finishing within seven of their opponents. The South Riding had something to celebrate besides Christmas.

So how did he do it? Firstly he had to implement a reorganisation of the coaching staff. "It was tough. These things are never easy, but they have to be done. But it is never personal with me, it just something that goes with the job.

"And I don't think there is any harm sometimes in making people aware that maybe they should consider doing something else. After all, I can either be proven wrong by them, or be thanked by them a couple of months down the line when they discover something else to which they are more suited."

His next task was no easier. Identifying the key areas of the side that need a change of playing personnel, then finding and bringing in those players. Unsurprisingly, he turned to South Africa. Six imports, five in the forwards, including the Natal No 8 Brad McLeod-Henderson, added bulk, youth and nous up front, where games are won and lost.

Five of those players faced London Irish and made an immediate impact. "If it is like climbing Mount Everest," adds Nel, "then we are probably at Base Camp and we will almost certainly have to drop back a few times as we climb higher. But at least the boys were able to leave the pitch after the match against Irish realising that that was a performance and they could hold their heads up.

"But professional sport is about winning and winning is a consequence of good performances. And there is still plenty of room for improvement." The important thing though is that already, in a bare three weeks since taking over, Nel has managed to inject an important ingredient into the Rotherham playing psyche - self-belief.

With a degree in psychology and philosophy Nel should find that side of things fairly easy to manage, but where he detects a shortfall is the fact that he has never played rugby at a senior level. "I was a hooker, but I had four operations in one season on both my ankles when I was 21 and I gave up playing," he explains. "And so having never played senior rugby I always thought I'd end up being a coach in the junior game."

However, he earned himself a reputation as a coach who could blend youth with experience in his teams and this helped to bring on the youngsters. At Stellenbosch University he had what was effectively an Under-21 team and among them was a certain Stuart Abbott, now with Wasps and a member of England's World Cup-winning squad. Neil de Kock, the Springbok scrum-half, also came under Nel's tutelage in that side.

"From that year, 1999, I think five players went on to become South African internationals," recalls Nel. And when he moved on to Connacht it was the same story. The Province blossomed, youth came through. Jonny O'Connor, an outstanding openside flanker, was "discovered" and joined Wasps this season.

Nel's ultimate ambition would be to coach the South Africa national team, but in the end it is not the glamorous side of the sport that motivates Nel. What gives him a buzz is not just seeing his teams become competitive entities, but also turning the promise and potential of youth into Test-class players. In short he lives for coaching.

"The big thing with me is the pursuit of excellence, finding the right buttons to press in order to bring out the best in people. And I don't care at what level I coach. I just want to coach."

If he presses all the right buttons at Rotherham, St Jude is likely to turn his back on the Titans. And that will be all right with Nel. And all right with South Yorkshire, too.

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