Stormers boss John Dobson often talks about the “tax” that coaches pay when entrusting mercurial talents in positions of responsibility. When you give players like Beauden Barrett, Finn Russell and Manie Libbok the licence to thrill, you accept that they will make mistakes.
It’s a bold approach, particularly in the conservative South African rugby environment where risk-aversion is often the name of the game. And yet, Dobson’s methods have encouraged adventurous players to realise their potential over the past two seasons, and have guided the Stormers to a United Rugby Championship trophy as well as back-to-back South African Shield titles.
Libbok is a personification of the Stormers’ spirit of adventure. Once considered surplus to squad requirements at the Bulls and Sharks, he’s now one of the most important members of the Stormers starting XV. That energy was harnessed by the Springboks when he featured in the big wins against Italy and England last November. If all goes to plan, he will travel with the 33-man Bok squad to the World Cup this September.
In the more immediate future, he will line up for the Stormers against the Bulls in the URC quarter-final staged in Cape Town. As things stand, the Stormers have won five consecutive matches against their arch-rivals, and Libbok – the player who wasn’t backed or developed during his time in Pretoria – has starred in every single victory.
The Stormers coaches insist that Libbok’s talent has always been there. He didn’t receive many starting opportunities while he was with the Bulls, partly due to the fact that Bok incumbent Handré Pollard enjoyed a monopoly on the No 10 jersey. At that stage, there was little consensus about whether Libbok was a fly-half or a fullback.
“We were a bit lucky that he wasn’t selected to start that often, whenever the Stormers played the Bulls,” says Stormers assistant coach Dawie Snyman. “That said, we remained wary of his ability to spark something from the bench. You could see how he got the whole team moving whenever he was introduced later in the game. He was dangerous.”
In the latter days of Super Rugby, the Stormers were celebrated for their set-piece and defensive strengths, yet criticised for their blunt attack. When financial issues at the union forced a number of star forwards to leave in 2021 – Siya Kolisi, Bongi Mbonambi and Pieter-Steph du Toit, to name a few – the coaches were forced to revise the game plan according to the personnel at their disposal.
The dire financial situation at the franchise also limited Dobson in terms of recruitment. Players who were no longer needed or rated by their franchises travelled to Cape Town, and at that stage, the future of the team was uncertain.
When Libbok arrived, however, there was a spark of optimism. As a former schoolboy and age-group star, he clearly had the talent to be a success. The Stormers’ brains trust formulated a plan to harness his strengths and address his weaknesses.
Manie and I got on well from the start, but I told him straight that I would need him to lift his standards in the tactical- and goal-kicking department. In terms of the latter, he was at around 50% when he arrived.
Gareth Wright, Stormers kicking coach
“He had a reputation as a brilliant attacking player, but his defence and kicking required work,” remembers Gareth Wright, a former Western Province fly-half who now serves as the Stormers kicking coach.
“Our defence coach Norman Laker spent a lot of time with him – and we started to see good results. Manie and I got on well from the start, but I told him straight that I would need him to lift his standards in the tactical- and goal-kicking department. In terms of the latter, he was at around 50% when he arrived.
Libbok often credits Dobson and the other Stormers coaches for giving him the platform to succeed. For the first time in his career, he is starting at No 10 on a regular basis. What’s more, he has a group of coaches that understands him completely.
“Coming into the Stormers, and having the backing of the coaches and the other players, it really suited me,” he said recently. “There were new systems and structures to learn, but I also had the freedom to go out onto the field and express myself. There was no pressure from the coaches. That was so important for my confidence.
“Winning the URC was big for myself as well as the team. The reason why I performed last season, and why I’m playing with such confidence this year, is because I have a coach who backs me. Dobbo gave me the chance to play week in and week out. I can’t tell you what that means, not just in terms of building confidence, but in terms of getting some form going.
“The way I play, I’m going to make mistakes. How you learn or bounce back from those mistakes defines you. Rugby moves very quickly, and whether you succeed or fail, you have to try and influence the next moment… and then the next. I always tell myself to forget about what came before. There will be another opportunity to make a difference.”
Snyman wouldn’t have it any other way.
“That’s our style of play. When you go for something and it comes off, it can lift the individual and the whole team. If it doesn’t come off, the player knows that there won’t be consequences in the video session on Monday.
“Sure, there will be a discussion around the options, and what may have been the better course of action in that particular situation. But ultimately we are trying to encourage the players to grow. We don’t want them to go into their shells. That’s not who we are.”
He has a great skill-set, in terms of his phenomenal hand-speed and passing quality. That can really make a difference when you’re under pressure or when you have the chance to exploit a situation that can change in an instant.
Snyman and Wright have worked closely with Libbok in the departments of attack and kicking. While the Stormers boast a great reputation with ball-in-hand, their overall success is linked to their excellent kicking strategy and potent counter-attack. Libbok plays such a key role in those areas.
“He has a great skill-set, in terms of his phenomenal hand-speed and passing quality,” says Snyman. “That can really make a difference when you’re under pressure or when you have the chance to exploit a situation that can change in an instant, but he is a guy that just seems to have so much time. It’s both a natural gift, and something he works at relentlessly. Even though he has such a great pass, he’ll work at passing and kicking drills throughout the week.
“We’ve encouraged him to make the decisions on the field,” the assistant coach continues, when asked to expand on Libbok’s attacking surges from deep within his own territory. “It comes down to picking up on the cues of the defensive team, and reacting to that.”
Both coaches point to the other players in the system, and how they and Libbok have forged a successful relationship. World Cup-winners such as Herschel Jantjies and Damian Willemse – who usually play on either side of Libbok at scrumhalf and inside centre respectively – are also enjoying a surge in form.
“Our game drivers have become settled in their roles,” says Snyman. “The time spent together on the pitch has improved the cohesion of the unit, as has the fact that each of those players know that they have the trust and backing of the coaches. We’ve had a really strong spine at 9, 10, and 15 – and 12 has also been key in our system.
“The more the guys play together, the better they will get. As far as Manie is concerned, I think he has benefitted from playing alongside so many of those other great players, and they have developed a good understanding of what he wants.”
Some will continue to write the Stormers and their somewhat unconventional fly-half off. What Libbok has proved in recent years is that he has the ability to shrug off past mistakes and to make the big play when it matters.
The upcoming quarter-final against the Bulls will provide Libbok with an opportunity to prove another point against his old team. Beyond that – should the Stormers progress – he will have the chance to show the Bok selectors that he can win games for his side in northern-hemisphere conditions.
“The biggest tactical challenge in this competition is related to the travel between the hemispheres,” notes Snyman. “One week we’re playing in summer conditions at home, and the next we’re up north where it’s raining and blowing a gale.
“The wind in particular demands a shift in tactics. We’re confident about where we are at the moment, but in terms of varying our approach to suit the conditions, we have room for improvement. I’m glad we’ve had some time off to prepare ahead of the playoffs.”
Some will continue to write the Stormers and their somewhat unconventional fly-half off. What Libbok has proved in recent years, however, is that he has the ability to shrug off past mistakes and to make the big play when it matters most.
“I can’t give enough credit to Dobbo for recognising his talent and backing him,” says Wright.” That’s probably the point of difference, having a coach who appreciates you for your talent and trusts you to go out there and make the big calls. I don’t think Manie would have got as far as he has without someone like Dobbo recognising what he has, and harnessing it.
“Playing week-in, week-out can do wonders for a player’s confidence – and for a player with such a big role to play, that can make a big impact on the team as a whole. He’s been the conductor of the orchestra for us, and has made a massive difference.”
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