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FEATURE Bok coaches face toughest call yet following Pollard’s timely return

Bok coaches face toughest call yet following Pollard’s timely return
8 months ago

It’s been the best of times and the worst of times – at least in one key department – for South African rugby over the past 12 months.

Handré Pollard’s nightmare run with injuries, Elton Jantjies’s off-field struggles as well as Frans Steyn’s untimely retirement has forced the Springbok coaches to back Damian Willemse and Manie Libbok in the all-important flyhalf position – and the upshot is that the Boks have struck out in a bold new attacking direction. With Willemse and Libbok sharing the No 10 duties, South Africa have won nine of their last 12 Tests.

During the same period, however, the Boks have underperformed in an area that typically separates the World Cup title contenders from the also-rans. Goal-kicking has been a concern, and the team is fortunate that the inconsistencies of Willemse, Libbok and several others haven’t led to more defeats – although they would do well to reflect on the 19-16 loss to Ireland in Dublin last year, in which they missed three shots on goal. More on this later.

Until now, it’s been relatively easy for the coaches and senior players to wave away suggestions that they are headed for disaster and disappointment. Until now, they haven’t had to make the call between Libbok and Pollard at No 10, because the latter has been unavailable due to injury. And until now, they have been right to defend the misfiring Libbok, who brings so much more to their game than a goal-kicking boot.

And yet, Pollard’s return – following a tournament-ending injury to a hooker, Malcolm Marx – suggests that the coaches will, at the very least, cover their bases at fly-half as the World Cup enters the do-or-die stages. Whether they have brought Pollard back to start in the play-offs, or to provide goal-kicking insurance from the bench, remains to be seen.

Handre Pollard
Handre Pollard was welcomed back into the Springbok camp with open arms (Photo by Steve Haag/Getty Images)

Libbok will start at No 10 against Ireland in a potential Pool B decider in Paris this Saturday. It’s the right call, given that Pollard only joined the squad in the French capital on Monday, and may take a few days to adjust to local conditions. The pecking order may change, though, if Libbok has another off-day in front of goal.

Bok skipper Siya Kolisi came to the defence of Libbok in the wake of the win against Scotland, after the fly-half missed three attempts at goal. Kolisi was right to argue that Libbok’s positive contributions boosted the team to a 15-point victory. With that in mind, you could forgive Libbok – at least in this context – for leaving eight points on the park.

That said, history tells us that accurate kicking has shaped and often decided the big knockout games at this tournament. There are numerous examples of one special kick securing the trophy – such as Joel Stransky’s extra-time drop goal in 1995, or Jonny Wilkinson’s late strike in 2003. There are further examples of successful teams converting dominance into points, and building scoreboard pressure. Percy Montgomery and Frans Steyn delivered in this manner back in the 2007 final, as did Dan Carter in 2015 and Pollard himself in 2019.

A specialist goal-kicker, or the lack of one, has determined the result of other big tournaments and series. The Boks outscored the Lions by nine tries to three across three Tests played in 1997, but lost the series 2-1 due to wayward goal-kicking.

In the next two instalments, the Boks got their priorities right. While many other players made key contributions, it was the goal-kicker – Morné Steyn – who ensured that South Africa got over the line in 2009 and 2021.

Coaches and teammates are reluctant to blame the kickers when a miss costs the team a big match. Nevertheless, success or failure in this department often means the difference between a gold and silver medal. Campaigns and whole eras can hinge on one kick.

Morne Steyn
The importance of a clutch kicker hasn’t been lost on the Springboks with Morne Steyn proving the hero in 2009 and 2021 against the Lions (Photo by EJ Langner/Gallo Images)

If Stransky had missed that drop goal attempt in 1995, a South African nation in transition wouldn’t have enjoyed such a morale-boosting moment. If Steyn hadn’t slotted those kicks in 2009 and 2021, the Boks may well have lost to the Lions. The buildup to the 2023 World Cup, and indeed the narrative around this particular Bok side, may have been very different.

But as things stand, the current side has the chance to become the first South African team to retain the World Cup title. The legacy of this group may be enhanced, or diminished, by one goal attempt in the playoffs.

One would expect the coaches to back their best goal-kicker at the business end of the tournament. Pollard has been South Africa’s most successful kicker in recent seasons, and is competing at his third World Cup. His experience of those pressure situations will be an asset to the side in the coming weeks.

Here’s where it gets complicated, though.

Libbok has proved himself at club level, steering the Stormers to an inaugural United Rugby Championship title in 2022. During that campaign, the fly-half stepped up in the big moments, slotting a match-winning conversion in the dying minutes of the semi-final against Ulster – from the touchline – as well as a title-clinching drop goal against the Bulls in the decider.

In a Bok jersey, Libbok has been less consistent in front of goal. His overall record is certainly impressive, with eight wins in 10 Tests, and six wins in six starts at No 10. During that run, he has been successful with 66% of his attempts on goal. Willemse (62%) has fared even worse.

SPRINGBOK GOAL-KICKERS SINCE 2022

SUCCESS RATEKICKING POINTS ADDEDKICKING POINTS MISSED
HANDRE POLLARD21/24 (88%)5612
ELTON JANTJIES2/4 (50%)56
DAMIAN WILLEMSE13/21 (62%)3018
FRANS STEYN7/7 (100%)150
JADEN HENDRIKSE1/1 (100%)20
CHESLIN KOLBE9/13 (69%)229
FAF DE KLERK10/16 (63%)2314
MANIE LIBBOK29/44 (66%)6437
OVERALL91/130 (70%)21796

The coaches have attempted to mitigate this shortcoming by handing the tee to other players in the team. But part-timers Faf de Klerk (63%) and Cheslin Kolbe (69%) have fared little better than the specialists.

Last November, the Boks missed a golden opportunity to beat Ireland in Dublin. They failed to convert most of their opportunities in the red zone, and Willemse and De Klerk combined for three missed goal kicks. Seven points went begging, and they ended up losing by a three-point margin.

Would they have won that game if they had Pollard in tow? Perhaps. Prior to sustaining a serious knee injury in the loss to Australia last August, Pollard had converted 21 out of 24 attempts across the 2022 season.

But Pollard hasn’t always been a world-class goal-kicker. Back in 2015, he missed several attempts at goal in the landmark loss to Argentina in Durban, and as a result, travelled to the World Cup later that year as the understudy to Pat Lambie.

He blew hot and cold at the 2019 tournament in Japan, and even missed his first attempt of the decider against England, before regaining his composure to nail all of his subsequent kicks.

Some may have forgotten about what transpired in the 2021 Lions series, where South Africa’s premier fly-half and goal-kicker – a player who had already won a World Cup – was hooked in the final moments of the decisive Test.

Manie Libbok
Manie Libbok is a supremely talented fly-half but has struggled off the tee for the Boks in 2023 (Photo by ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP via Getty Images)

The coaches made a cold and calculated call to replace Pollard with Morné Steyn, a decision that was certainly justified after Steyn kicked two penalties and steered South Africa to a monumental series victory. Pollard made a number of important contributions in general play over the course of those three Tests, but it was left to Steyn to steer the side home.

There are parallels between that Lions series and the current World Cup campaign. Libbok will benefit from Pollard’s call-up, just as Pollard himself benefitted from playing and training alongside Steyn in 2021.

There is no designated kicking coach in the Bok management team, and Pollard will be tasked with boosting Libbok’s confidence and assisting the younger player with the more technical aspects of goal-kicking in the coming weeks.

Some may laugh at this observation, given that both men are competing for the same position, and the same shot at immortality. But as was the case in 2021, two players with different skill sets may be needed to achieve one big result.

There was always a chance that Pollard might return ahead of the big World Cup pool matches. While he isn’t available for the crunch clash against Ireland this Saturday, he will come into the selection frame for the playoffs.

Should the coaches use Pollard as they used Steyn in that Lions series, as an insurance policy if Libbok has one of his off-days in front of goal?

This approach would allow the Boks to persist with Libbok as the starting No 10 in the quarter-finals and a more attacking approach capable of fracturing the defences of New Zealand and France. If the game is still in the balance in the second half, Pollard may be deployed from the bench to close it out.

Erasmus and Nienaber have made it clear, however, that they still intend to utilise a more traditional game plan, which relies heavily on set-piece supremacy, accurate tactical kicking and aerial contesting.

Faf de Klerk
Faf de Klerk has been known to kick conversion on occasion, as an emergency option (Photo by Paul Harding/Getty Images)

Former Springbok lock Victor Matfield weighed in on the debate about South Africa’s starting fly-half and their favoured game plan shortly after the news about Pollard’s return was confirmed. Matfield argue that Pollard – the better kicker, defender and tactical strategist – was a better fit for the pragmatic approach, and should be on the field from the outset.

There’s something else to consider, though. While Pollard has plenty of credit in the bank, he hasn’t played a Test match in more than 12 months. Will a hit-out against Tonga in the final pool match allow him to shake off the rust ahead of a tactical arm-wrestle against one of France and New Zealand in the quarter-finals? Has he returned a game or two too late?

The selection meetings won’t get any easier in the coming weeks. A nation will be holding its breath to see who wears the No 10 jersey, and who takes on the goal-kicking responsibilities, when the tournament reaches the do-or-die stage.

Comments

6 Comments
T
Tobie 270 days ago

Don't think for one minute that Rassie and Jacques have not got a game plan... cunning game plan.
I trust Libbok and the decisions of the coaches.
Firing at 100% in the early stages is not the be-all-end-all. What is important is development and improvement and it is showing IMHO.
I'm excited to see what Libbok does against Ireland, and I'm not panicking.
Whatever the outcome lessons are learned.

R
Richie 270 days ago

Firstly the 'great' Irishman you quote is an embarrassment +. The SA line speed you allude too I presume you mean when it's onside !? Sexton is readable yes but Crowley not ! It will be a close game that will be won by a moment of magic I believe and happily we have the best 3 magicians in our backline 😁

S
Snash 270 days ago

this RWC will be the highest scoring in history (knock-outs) reducing the importance of goal kicking and penalties, i think (and hope) Pollard will sit on the bench but that barely sits well with 6/2 never mind 7/1 - unless of course he starts at centre.

B
Bob Marler 271 days ago

Pollard hasn’t played enough over the past few months to warrant selection as a starter ahead of Libbok. It would be foolish. Maybe against Tonga.

But something that this article does touch on, that makes a helluva lot of sense, is having Pollard come in and support Libbok in the goal kicking area.

Libbok has the fundamentals, lacking in the execution. Maybe it’s a mistake that they don’t have a kicking coach. But having pollard as both an insurance policy and a team mate who can help Libbok deal with the yips?

Libbok was the top point scorer in the URC by about 80 points. It can be fixed.

Lastly - why not bring Frans or Morne in as kicking consultants for the World Cup? Just a thought.

Nigel is a poes.

B
Brian 271 days ago

I think he has returned a game or two too late. However, Pollard is a game changer and will have the same impact as the Bomb Squad. Think they should have brought him in for the 2nd half of the last game, then do the same again for the next game against Tonga. What I am dumbfounded by is that the goal kicking has also been left this late to be addressed where we all know the margins can be as slim as a missed conversion. I trust Jacque and Rassie have a game plan to make up for that gap. Maybe it won’t matter if the Boks unload on their opponents in the Quarterfinals, whoever it may be.

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