EXCLUSIVE: Former Stormers, Lions and Saints scrum-half Nic Groom chats with Sport24

Nic Groom in action for the Lions against the Sharks in 2019. (Photo by Steve Haag/Gallo Images)

  • The former Stormers and Lions scrum-half talks about moving back to the Mother City and whether WP could entice him with a playing deal.
  • The ex-Northampton Saint, who played for the club for three seasons, offers his thoughts on how South African teams can retain their best talent.
  • Consultant Ikey Tigers also unpacks missing out on Springbok selection in 2016 and explains why his career is ‘in no way a failure for not getting there’.

Sport24 asked: How are you enjoying your return to Cape Town?

Nic Married: It’s great to be back in Cape Town after last playing in Europe with the London Irish in 2021. As a young family we have decided to come home. I currently assist the Ikey Tigers and am involved in improving and developing player skills. I do a lot of one-on-one work with players and small groups, looking at areas where they want to improve. We sit down and find out how we can track their improvement. It is sometimes very difficult to have an eye on the long term, because with the matches coming up quickly, you are more focused on the short to medium term. Much of what I do with the team is measured in terms of repeated actions. Enhancement is a multi-tiered realm, but essentially what we want to see in pressure situations in games are skills performed at a higher level than they were before. Statistics can measure this to some extent, but a big part of my job is to watch clips from training and compare player progress over time.

Sport24 asked: Would you still accept a game offer from WP?

Nic Married: I would definitely consider it and think I could add a lot of value to the place. I chat with Dobbo (John Dobson) from time to time and my conversations with him are extremely frank. He knows where I am and what I’m doing. He is aware that I have no interest in going anywhere else and, if a game opportunity does not arise, I will continue to move on to the next chapter of my life that excites me…. I think the union made good choices in bringing back seasoned pros like Deon Fourie, Juan de Jongh and Brok Harris. There’s a level of maturity they bring to the game and that fills a gap. As a union, Western Province has changed drastically over the past three years in terms of player rotation and intellectual property that has gone missing for some reason, so bringing back the older players to supplement the younger players has been a good thing. I’m very hesitant to criticize the team I played for because I know the challenges faced by players and coaches. With all the off-field drama that unfolded, it may have served to galvanize the team in some way. (The Stormers are the highest placed South African franchise in the United Rugby Championship). With so much distracting their attention, it must be incredibly difficult work. In my time as a Western Province/Stormers player, there isn’t a place like this where you experience this level of attention in a boardroom. It’s something that most other clubs never really deal with and as a player you just don’t feel that pressure anywhere else. For a long time, Province had a lot of worries off the pitch. I don’t think you can fully understand what is happening from the outside. It’s a shame because there’s some off-pitch stuff that drags on and I feel for the players and the coaches. And it doesn’t matter trying to motivate a team and get them ready to play, which is a difficult task at the best of times.

Sport24 asked: How do you rate the Springboks’ 2021 season?

Nic Married: One thing I will say about the Springboks is that they always had a chance. The current squad has a gritty advantage that ensures they’ll never be completely out of a game. Had they played against France or Ireland on their year-end tour, they would definitely have had a chance to beat them. The margins are so small at this level. Of the five games they’ve lost in 2021, I don’t think anyone can say the Springboks were completely off the mark. There are a lot of variables involved in a sport that is quite complicated at the best of times. You can play badly and win and play well and lose. How you create your environment and your approach to getting the most out of players is paramount to you having a chance of succeeding. Often in rugby there is an illusion of control that you have over certain games. There are some things you can insist on and control, but for the rest you have to trust your players, your structures and your systems, which I think the Boks do well.

Sport24 asked: Have the Boks become too reliant on a kicking game?

Nic Married: Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber are some of the most analytical game people I have ever met. They are in the business of winning games and there is a good balance between what is going to give you the best chance of winning games and what is entertaining. I think the Boks have actually struck that balance pretty well because in reality there is a plan and a strategy in place. And believe it or not, this strategy is highly skilled, worked on and developed by everyone within the entire organization. There’s nothing the Springboks do that hasn’t been scrutinized by all decision-makers. Whether or not they are unconventional or portray a team that lacks ambition and imagination is irrelevant. If you zoom out from professional sports, you’re not really going to have a job if you’re entertaining, but you’re going to have a job if you’re winning games. I think finding the balance is a fine line. Most of the time, Nienaber, Erasmus and the whole Bok setup used this to their advantage and did a really good job. I don’t think anyone can deny that.

Sport24 asked: How to keep more top players in South Africa?

Nic Married: You have to give them things money can’t buy. It’s about players finding a place where they belong and an environment in which they can thrive. They need to feel part of something bigger than themselves. The Sharks, for example, are creating this culture and have launched their own player wellness program. When this is the case, the only thing players need to worry about is training hard and performing at their best. Probably the team environments I enjoyed the most were my last years with the Stormers as well as with the Northampton Saints. That said, things in Northampton ended very oddly and quite quickly for me. All the coaches have been fired and a new CEO has arrived. I was getting out of my contract at the worst of times. I had plans in place with the previous manager to extend my stay there and thought I was going to retire in Northampton. It got to a stage where they couldn’t give me an answer after months of back and forth and finally I said, ‘I have to go, otherwise I won’t be able to play anywhere else. I have reached an agreement to join the Lions earlier than initially planned to play in Super Rugby. I signed a contract on Saturday and arrived on Wednesday. I loved my stay with the Lions. It may have been short lived but it was so enjoyable.

Sport24 asked: Do you have any regrets that you never played for the Boks?

Nic Married: When I made the 31 Springbok squad in 2016 for the incoming tour against Ireland, it was definitely the closest I’ve ever come to representing the Boks. It was an incredible honor to be involved in camp and officially named to the team. I was playing for the Lions at the time and had a few conversations with Swys de Bruin, who later got involved with the Springboks, about my chances. However, I broke my hand and it was maybe my last chance to have a chance to participate in the national selection. I left just after the November tour of that year to go to Northampton and would like to think I would have been capped if overseas players with less than 30 caps had been allowed to be selected. One or two guys who went on this tour, who ended up playing a game, were behind me in the pecking order. Sometimes I think if I stayed I might have had my chance, but that’s not something I really dwell on. I’m at peace with that and I don’t think my career will be defined by whether or not I played for the Boks. It would have been a huge honor to play for my country but my career was by no means a failure because I didn’t make it. I’ve had an amazing career and I’m so thrilled with how it turned out. And in many ways not being a Springbok has opened up a few doors for me overseas because in terms of representation of foreign players, if you’re an international player you fall into a certain quota range of which clubs must be aware.

Previous interviews:

Dane Van Niekerk

Dave Nosworthy

Swys of Bruin

Brett Schultz

Percy Montgomery

Alan Solomons

Josh Strauss

Mouritz Botha

David Denton

Warren Brosnihan

Charles P. Patton