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Let's get real about Manie Libbok

By Daniel Gallan
Manie Libbok of South Africa reacts after missing a kick at goal during the Rugby World Cup France 2023 match between South Africa and Ireland at Stade de France on September 23, 2023 in Paris, France. (Photo by Craig Mercer/MB Media/Getty Images)

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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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Comments

120 Comments
C
Corey 265 days ago

From an International rugby level the kicking was poor. These are supposed to be the best of the best in their respective positions and in their craft. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to see that Manie absolutely does not belong in the RWC squad. I will go as far as to say if Manie is selected again I would forget any chance of succeeding in this World Cup. Is he a good player sure, but a really bad goal kicker so that would make him 50% a good player thats nowhere near good enough for Springbok level let alone International Rugby World Cup level. Unfortunately we do also have the quota to contend with and that also does mean that not the best of the best are playing. Like I said if Manie plays another game. Good luck!

N
Nico 266 days ago

What absolute bollocks! Libbock is a maestro at flyhalf and has transformed the Springbok backline into an amazing unit. Pollard
cannot do that. Poor captain decision to not rather go for the corners and use the Bok strengths to go for 7. They did not back themselves.

a
ashi 266 days ago

If Boks would have taken every kick beyond 40m out to the corners we would have won by at least 8-10 points. Erasmus' management and decisions are cockeyed trying to get a part time kicker to convert 3 points from 60 mts is seriously dumb because 1 point lead wasn't an option even if it worked.

U
Utiku Old Boy 267 days ago

It seems that Mr Gallan is inferring the problem in the loss was Libbok. Another way of looking at it is that the lack of a reliable goal kicker in the team cost points. A goal kicker doesn't have to have 10 on their back. They tried Faf who is also an option but the Boks and their coaches have not suddenly become "bad" because they didn't kick goals to win this game. The same writer points out in another article that being beaten at the tackle/breakdown was the main "reason" for the loss. I find this more accurate.

D
David 267 days ago

1st rule of man management, don't slag off your players in public but say what needs to be said to them on the training ground etc. Of course, Neinaber knows where it was lost

A
Adam 267 days ago

"Let’s not get it twisted. South Africa would have beaten Ireland had they kicked all of their shots at goal."

Let's not get it twisted, Ireland would have hammered South Africa if even a fraction of their lineouts worked."

Let's not get it twisted, Ireland would have hammered South Africa if the 1/10000 freak penalty off the post was not a freak.

Let's not get it twisted, if my granny had wheels she'd be a trolley.

M
Mellet 267 days ago

There is also this issue of the downfall of Elton Jantjies, who was the traditional understudy to Pollard.

If Elton's personal life and his alleged doping did not become such a crisis, he would have been the replacement to an injured Pollard.

Whilst we all agree that Libbok came through and deserved recognition from the Bok management (and he will probably go on to become one of our greatest flyhalves ever), this test was a bridge too far for him.

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Andy 267 days ago

Of course Erasmus and Nienaber could not admit that Springboks lost because:

  1. They don't have either a goal kicker or even a goal-kicking coach.
  2. They have a backup hooker who cannot throw in straight.
  3. The ref pinged them for persistently infringing.
With a kicker of Farrell's or Ford's ability, the Boks would have won last night. With a regular hooker, they would have won. For much of the match they were by far the better team, and yet they lost because of their pig-headed coach & director of rugby. That's why I call karma.

p
pof 267 days ago

Libbok cost his team the match? He missed 5 points, which was checks notes exactly the margin between the teams. P.S. pull out your dictionary for 'compatriot', because Libbok is not one of Sexton's.

M
Michael Röbbins (academic and writer extraordinair 267 days ago

One man cost a 23 on 23 match, hmmmm? Think someone else needs to cut the bullshit.

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