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Manie Libbok gives Boks reason to dream

By Daniel Gallan
Manie Libbok (Photo by Chris Ricco/Getty Images)

Something strange took place in Genoa on Saturday. It started just before 15:00 local time and lasted around 34 minutes. But for just over half an hour, and for the first time in what has felt like an age, the Springboks had an actual fly-half playing in the No10 position. We’re not talking about a full-back standing at first receiver, or a ball-playing No12 tasked with the job of igniting, rather than continuing, an attack.

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This was a bonafide ball-playing, goal-kicking, string-pulling fly-half who looked the real deal. And it got Springboks fans wondering the same question simultaneously: is Manie Libbok the answer to all their problems?

Before we get dizzy with grandiose visions of this international rookie tearing England apart in another World Cup final triumph, some caveats need to be addressed. By the time the 25-year-old entered the field against Italy, South Africa were already in the ascendency. He replaced Cheslin Kolbe who had just injured himself scoring a delicious solo try from a South African restart with the Springboks opening up a 23-16 lead.

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Four minutes earlier Eben Etzebeth had joined the party and his introduction coincided with a dramatic swing in momentum. The Boks pack was starting to dominate and Libbok received every pass on the front foot.

But here’s the thing. He received every pass on the front foot from a much shallower position than either Damian Willemse, who was playing at 10 before shifting to the wing, or Willie le Roux, who had shone at first receiver the week before in Marseille.

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Libbok did the equivalent of slipping on a pair of well-worn jeans. He did so with visceral confidence and absolute certainty of what was expected of him. His understanding of space, of where to position himself on the attack, and when to pick the right pass was that of a man who had developed a very particular point of view on a rugby field. Catching, passing, kicking and tackling are skills that can be coached. The in-game awareness that separates a natural fly-half from someone merely wearing No10 on his back has to be inculcated by experience.

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This might be a good time to mention Libbok’s numbers against Italy. He slotted five conversions, the first of which was a statement shot from out on the left touchline which injected a sense of surety that has been missing from the tee all autumn.

He made twelve passes which all had a positive impact. One, a perfectly timed skipped ball to le Roux behind three decoy runners created an overlap down the left and ended with Kurt-Lee Arendse scoring his second try. Another was shifted under pressure on the wraparound which opened the field down the right and ended with Willemse dotting down in the corner. The best of all was a 15-metre bullet that thudded into Siya Kolisi’s breadbasket and ended with Cobus Reinach sliding over beneath the posts.

It would be too easy to attribute these three tries to Libbok. That would be unfair to a talent still finding his feet at this level and a gross misunderstanding of the fundamentals of the game. We could just as easily credit le Roux’s vision or Arendse’s speed. We could cite busting runs in midfield or charges around the fringe in the build-up. If you’d like, you can even wonder if the pigeons that constantly occupied a large piece of real estate at the Stadio Luigi Ferraris somehow had something to do with what transpired.

But isn’t it refreshing just having this conversation? I’m not only addressing Springboks fans who have for decades looked at the tricksters and magicians who play international rugby in black, gold, white, blue, red, and light green and yearned for someone similar.

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There have been yeomen and craftsmen, de facto engineers who understood their limitations and played within a system. Three World Cups is the only counterargument a Springbok fan needs and is a great way of shutting down any condemnation concerning their preferred style of play. Even Brian O’Driscoll this week doused cold water on criticism directed at the Springboks’ stoic approach and pointed to their bulging trophy cabinet.

Deep down, though, Springboks fans have longed for a maverick at 10 who can marry pragmatism with panache. A baller who is more than just a square peg in a square hole, but someone who lights up the crowd and requires an extra set of hands editing the highlights package.

Libbok may not be that man. This might be his best-ever game in a Springboks jersey. He may fade from memory as the wait continues. Then again, this could be a springboard for grander stages. He has to start next week in Twickenham.

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The English defence won’t afford him the same freedoms that the Italians so willingly provided, and the Springboks pack will go through spells where they’re on the defensive. There will be times when Libbok gathers the ball on his heels rather than his toes and there might be the odd late hit or bone-rattling tackle that leaves him gasping for air.

Good. That is the sort of acid test that all talented 10s require. Only under this examination can we accurately gauge where Libbok stands in the pantheon of active fly-haves. Le Roux and Willemse are not the answer. Elton Jantjies had torpedoed his career and Handre Pollard, arguably South Africa’s most complete and accomplished 10 since readmission, can’t be counted on given his struggles with his fitness.

Libbok has already steered the Stormers to a title when he nailed a conversion, a penalty, and a drop-goal in the 18-13 win over the Bulls in the United Rugby Championship final in June. Could he replicate that and deliver South Africa a fourth World Cup crown? It doesn’t hurt to dream, does it?

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