Manie’s the man – Bok flyhalf has a chance to join the game’s heroes

Manie’s the man – Bok flyhalf has a chance to join the game’s heroes
Manie Libbok in action during the Rugby Championship match between South Africa and Argentina in Johannesburg on 29 July 2023. (Photo: Wessel Oosthuizen / Gallo Images)

Manie Libbok was not even a Springbok a year ago. Now he is the most important player in the squad defending SA’s Rugby World Cup title.

The nature of rugby, and the very skills-specific requirements of each position, has always meant that the man in the No 10 jersey is a vital cog in the machine. Flyhalves haven’t always been the primary goal-kickers, but there is little doubt that the athlete operating in the first receiver channel dictates terms more than any other player.

Manie Libbok is now in the hot seat and much of South Africa’s success will depend on his health, form and big-match temperament. There is no getting around it because the position compels it.

Handré Pollard, who serenely guided the Boks to an unlikely Rugby World Cup 2019 title in Japan, was not named in the 33-man squad to defend the title.

A torn calf muscle did not heal as quickly as hoped. Pollard might be fit by the time the tournament kicks off on 8 September. But, barring an unforeseen setback, he is most certainly set to be match ready by the time the knockout stages start on 14 October.

But Bok coach Jacques Nienaber didn’t feel he could name Pollard in the squad when he revealed the 33 names on 8 August. There were just too many variables at play and, to a degree, there still are, even though Pollard’s big-match temperament is not easily replaced or replicated.

He top scored at RWC 2019 with 69 points, landing 16 penalties in the process. He is South Africa’s all-time leading RWC scorer with 162 points in 13 matches.

Crucially, in the semifinal and final in Japan, he landed 13 of 15 kicks at goal, notching up 36 points in the two biggest matches of the tournament. Under the most pressure, Pollard delivered.

His only misses were a sitter in the second minute of the final and a 59m effort later in the game. That one was always out of his range, but was a tactical kick to keep England pinned back deep inside their territory.

An 87% accuracy from the kicking tee in two of the most high-pressure games imaginable, which included a tough, late match-­winning penalty over Wales in the semifinal, is what it takes to win a World Cup.

But it wasn’t only his kicking that impressed. Pollard’s rock-solid defence at flyhalf and his ability to carry into contact and attack the gainline were also crucial.

Manie's time to shine.

Manie Libbok jumps for the ball during a Test match against Argentina’s Pumas at Jose Amalfitani Stadium in Buenos Aires on 5 August 2023. (Photo: Marcelo Endelli / Getty Images)

Manie time

Libbok is an excellent flyhalf, who has made seven appearances for the Boks since his debut last November. He has shown he is comfortable making the step up to Test rugby. His ability and talent are not in question.

But what is under scrutiny is that Libbok is the only recognised fit flyhalf in the squad. Damian Willemse is the backup plan at this stage and others such as Faf de Klerk or Cheslin Kolbe could fill in if needed. But that would be a stretch.

Although Nienaber named four scrumhalves and only one flyhalf for RWC 2023, the coach insists there are no nefarious plans to include Pollard later at the expense of one of the scrumhalves.

“There are a lot of rumours flying around about the squad, about this plot that we’re going to take four scrumhalves and we’re going to put Handré in,” Nienaber said at the team’s departure.

“But if you have a heart, how do you pick a guy and then tell him to fake an injury and get the other guy in? We would never do that. If there are no injuries, the whole 33 will go and come back.

“Handré is not injured now, and he trained with us for two sessions, but he’s still on his way back from a fitness perspective.”

Manie's time to shine

Manie Libbok has proved he can perform under pressure. Here he is in action during the Autumn International match against England at Twickenham Stadium in London on 26 November 2022. (Photo: Tom Dulat / Getty Images)

Heavy workload

There are 10 weeks to go between now and the RWC 2023 final on 28 October. In an ideal world, the Boks will play nine Tests – two more warm-up matches and a further seven at the World Cup before the final. And if Libbok remains the only flyhalf in the group, he might have to start six of those games and probably be on the bench for the other two.

That’s a lot of high-intensity rugby. It’s a lot of minutes on the field where injury lurks just a moment of bad luck away. It’s a mountain of time on the training pitch and in the analysis room. In short, it’s a lot of pressure on one man.

But Libbok’s career trajectory has been upward for more than two seasons since he joined the Stormers after drifting from the Bulls to the Sharks. He needed a coach and a home that saw his rare talent – excellent handling, kicking off both feet, speed, agility and rugby brain – and worked those traits to mould a more rounded player.

John Dobson and the Stormers did just that. He is now a supreme tactical kicker, with a better sense of when to play the percentages and when to chance his arm.

When Libbok arrived at the Stormers his goal-kicking was at 54%, according to stats supplied by the union. In 2022, he scored 177 points in the United Rugby Championship (URC) with a 74% goal-kicking success rate. In 2023, he again top scored in the URC with 217 points at an 80% success rate.

He’s also landed huge pressure such as the URC semifinal touchline conversion to beat Ulster in 2022 and a drop goal in the final against the Bulls. In the 2023 URC quarterfinal against the Bulls, Libbok kicked six out of seven and in the semi against Connacht, in a strong wind, he landed six out of eight.

Although he has had issues from the tee in Test rugby, it’s been slightly overplayed. On debut Libbok didn’t kick against France in Marseille, but a week later he slotted five from six against Italy in a 63-21 win for the Boks.

Against Australia earlier this year, Libbok landed four out of six, and against the Pumas at Loftus, it was three from four. He landed five from nine in Buenos Aires for a season’s tally of 12 out of 19. In his Test career he is slotting 68% of kicks at goal, which is below where it should be, but not a crisis either. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.


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