Let's get real about Manie Libbok
Let’s not get it twisted. South Africa would have beaten Ireland had they kicked all of their shots at goal. In fact, they’d have won if they’d registered at least some of the 11 points they left out on the pitch. Some shots, like the two from Faf de Klerk from long range, were difficult . But a concern has morphed into a problem and is now looking like a major barrier to their World Cup title defence.
Which is why it’s hard to believe Jacques Nienaber when he yet again downplayed this crucial facet of the Springboks’ game.
“I won’t say it’s only goal kicking [that cost his team the win] but I know you guys will say that,” South Africa’s coach told the gathered press after the match. “We had opportunities in the first half where we lost the ball under the poles. And at the end with the last maul, we had a great opportunity. That’s why I say, ‘Hats off to Ireland’. They were better than us on the night.”
Indeed they were. At the breakdown, in the midfield and around the fringe. But those components, crucial though they may be, are not the significant reason for the defeat.
Manie Libbok is unquestionably a talented fly-half. Despite only being a Springbok since November last year, one could still make a decent case that he is the most talented fly-half South Africa has produced in the professional era. His distribution is a joy to watch. His ability to read space in front of him is almost telepathic. And he unleashes runners off his shoulder as if he spiralled an umbilical cord scissor to his father moments after after his own birth.
But he’s not a goal-kicker. That much is evident. Before this match he had only slotted 66% of his shots at Test level. Before the start of this match, a game he must have known would be his final chance to prove his worth in a tough contest against a fellow heavyweight, he was shanking them left. Like an amateur golfer who simply can’t fathom why the ball continues to draw from the driver, he seemed to have no idea what the problem was.
No other kicker in the tournament so far has had as much problem with the shot clock. This is a clear sign that he is unsettled. And though his distribution game and his kicks from hand haven’t nosedived as well, it’s hard not to feel that he is now a walking liability.
Johnny Sexton came to Libbok’s defence. The Irish captain spoke eloquently of the inevitable struggles that all goal-kickers face at some point in their careers. He explained how this can impact on other facets of a pivot’s game and backed Libbok to come good. “He’ll be better for it,” Sexton said of his young compatriot. “He’s a quality player.”
There is little doubt that Libbok will bounce back from this. But the Boks don’t have time to wait around for that to happen. This squad is at the end of its life cycle. The World Cup triumph in 2019 was four years premature. Rassie Erasmus has said as much. This iteration was always the goal for a team that was conditioned to peak in France.
What’s more, the Springboks don’t have a goal-kicking coach. This now looks like an astonishing oversight from an organisation that is otherwise meticulous in its preparation. Or it’s a clear sign of their hubris. Whatever the reason, they’ve painted themselves in a corner and left themselves without any recourse to solve the problem internally. Which is why they have no other option but to select Handre Pollard for the quarterfinal no matter how accurately he himself kicks from the tee against Tonga next week.
“Lots of things go into team selection,” Nienaber said of the possibility that Pollard will now parachute straight into the number 10 jersey. “We will get the medical status after 24-48 hours and then we will go through our team selection process as normal.”
Nienaber deserves some praise for backing Libbok. Only a fool would believe him when he says that goal-kicking is not a major concern but he is at least refusing to throw a young talent under the bus. Between mundane cliches in the mixed zoner afterwards, Cheslin Kolbe espoused similar support for Libbok. Jessie Kriel too declined the bait to express some genuine frustration that a game was lost primarily because of one man’s right foot.
However, some honesty is needed. This is a team that has consciously and emphatically positioned itself as a moral lightning rod for the country they represent. Their supporters believe them to be a living representation of what is possible when corrupt and lying politicians are left out of a nation-building project and the evils of the past aren’t ignored or blamed, but are instead used as lessons on the road to a better future.
So, to be frank, it would be refreshing if Nienaber and his team cut the bullshit. They owe it to the public and the journalists who report their words to offer an iota of honesty. The coach doesn’t have to slam Libbok and announce right there that the fly-half has been axed from the squad. But it is disingenuous to say anything other than the truth.
The truth is that Libbok cost his team a match they could afford to lose. Perhaps Nienaber and the rest might not be so restrained if the same thing happens in a game that has a little more riding on it.
Join free and tell us what you really think!Sign up for free