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Neil de Kock: Libbok can make Springbok statement with World Cup looming

By Neil de Kock
Manie Libbok lines up a kick for the Stormers. Photo by Grant Pitcher/Gallo Images/Getty Images

The Springboks have made five changes to their starting XV to tackle France in the 45th test between the two nations.

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United Rugby Championship-winning Stormers flyhalf Manie Libbok has been named as a substitute and I’m sure he’ll make his debut. Libbok has been outstanding for the Stormers and tends to get his backs away well. He has faced some pressurised situations where he has delivered. In the big moments, he has stood up and been counted. He’s obviously inexperienced at international level and quite raw in that regard but he’s also a player capable of doing some really good things. The Stormers coaching staff stuck with him at 10 and he brought it week-in and week-out. In terms of their style of play, he fits it so nicely and they reaped the rewards. The benefit for the Springboks is that they have got someone like Libbok who can come on.

A talking point for everyone after last week’s defeat to Ireland was regarding goalkicking. With test match rugby, it’s always more comforting for a team to go in with an 80-90 percent goalkicker. Would I have preferred to have Libbok starting? It’s a catch-22 because you would be putting him in a debut test against the French in France which is quite a responsibility and would have made a statement. It’s probably the best decision the Bok coaching staff could have made to go with the tried-and-tested Damian Willemse and then have Libbok come on and do a job for them in the final half an hour.

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If you look through the Springbok starting team, there are quite a few people debating who is actually going to take the kicking duties from the start. I would like to think it will be Willemse but after one kick against Ireland, he either decided he didn’t want to carry on or it was decided for him. Cheslin Kolbe then took over the goalkicking and had a 33 percent success rate courtesy of two missed conversions. There have been suggestions that Kolbe will be the first-choice kicker in Marseille. It may be a red herring but if it came to pass it wouldn’t really surprise me because he has kicked for Toulouse before.

Willemse has played the majority of his minutes in the URC at centre and fullback. Taking that into account, he has been outstanding slotting in for the Springboks at 10. We know his abilities and that he is able to play almost anywhere across the backline but, if Kolbe is to be the first-choice kicker, it may not be a bad thing just to take that extra little bit of responsibility away from Damian to focus on his game. He has massive responsibility on his shoulders as it is and to lob the goal-kicking duties on him as well is a lot. I don’t think Damian is inexperienced at 10 but rather that he’s currently underplayed. If you are playing in a different position all season, you are probably a little bit rusty when you get into that driving seat. Damian is a fantastic rugby player and hopefully he will come to the fore.

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But if you think of teams, a lot of times the bus driver can be the 9. Fourie du Preez was a perfect example of it for many years with the Boks. During my test career, my partner at 10 went from the ultra-conservative to the combative to the mercurial runner. In those days, the Bok coaches experimented with different variations. With the likes of Handre Pollard and Elton Jantjies unavailable, if we are thinking about the World Cup next year then it’s definitely not the worst thing in the world. If you want to test players at international level, now is the time to do it. The Springboks have one of the toughest tours on the end of year calendar and if you’re not going to test the likes of Willemse and Libbok now then when else would you test them? All 10s have strengths and weaknesses in terms of how they play but, for me, it has always been how they communicate coupled with their ability to remain calm.

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A 9-10 pairing needs to spend time together in the saddle and France have that in Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack. Dupont is definitely a talisman for France and a special player. If the Boks nullify him there is still plenty of talent there but he is at the heart of it.  I think it’s fair to say that France play more of a balanced game through the 9 and 10 but that said they are just as conservative as the Springboks in certain parts of the field. They possess a good exit strategy and don’t mess around in their own third too much.

Following an 11-year career with Saracens, which saw him earn 264 caps, Neil de Kock now works in the rugby division at the Stellenbosch Academy of Sport. De Kock, who featured in 10 Test matches for the Springboks, provides RugbyPass with expert insight and opinion focusing on South Africa.

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