Sport

RWC 2023

Erasmus sets stage for Pollard’s return by trying to tone down hysteria over Bok flyhalf berth

Erasmus sets stage for Pollard’s return by trying to tone down hysteria over Bok flyhalf berth
South African director of rugby Rassie Erasmus. (Photo: Craig Mercer / MB Media / Getty Images)

Director of rugby Rassie Erasmus has started laying the groundwork for a potential Springbok flyhalf change at Rugby World Cup 2023.

Rassie Erasmus is the most calculated and calculating person in rugby. Nothing he does or says in the public domain is done on a whim, or by accident.

Every nugget of information he releases publicly, or selectively through preferred media channels without being named, is to push an idea, sell a concept, or shape a narrative. That’s what successful people do.

This week, following the Boks 13-8 defeat against Ireland in their crunch Pool B Rugby World Cup (RWC) 2023 clash at Stade de France, which saw the defending world champions see a potential 11 points from the tee wasted, Erasmus put himself up for media duty immediately.

It was time for damage control as South Africans turned their anger on struggling flyhalf Manie Libbok. The Stormers man is only battling from the kicking tee, with three out of eight successful shots at goal in France. His all-round game, though, remains strong, accurate and incisive.

But the coaches’ decision to recall Handré Pollard, now fit after a long-term calf injury, in place of a hooker Malcolm Marx, immediately heaped pressure on Libbok days before the biggest pool game of the tournament.

bok flyhalf libbok

Manie Libbok of South Africa in action during the Rugby World Cup France 2023 match against Scotland at Stade Vélodrome in Marseille on 10 September 2023. (Photo: Franco Arland / Quality Sport Images / Getty Images)

Pollard’s shadow loomed large over Libbok at Stade de France on Saturday. The Boks are a close-knit squad, but they are also humans and suddenly Libbok had the man who won the 2019 title, up close and on the sideline. Whether that added pressure to an already highly pressurised situation, only Libbok will know.

But Erasmus, sensing the mood of the country, and certainly understanding the anger and frustration of fans while trying to protect his players – both Libbok and Pollard – decided to try to shape the narrative, or at least, tone down the hysteria.

“Manie is definitely playing brilliant flyhalf rugby at this stage but obviously his goalkicking isn’t matching that,” Erasmus said.

“If you weigh up the different things he does, he makes a great contribution to the team, but he is in a bit of a dip with his goalkicking – he knows it, we know it and the world knows it.

“When number one in the world plays number two, the game is going to be decided by a margin of one of two or three points played in a really intense Test match atmosphere.

“I don’t think they [Ireland] converted more chances than we did – they just kicked two more penalties than us.

“A good team [such as] Ireland, New Zealand or France [is] going to keep you out – like we did to Ireland – so converting chances is not easy. They scored one try and we scored one try; it was clear that our problem was that we didn’t convert our goal kicks.”

Handré Pollard

Handré Pollard of South Africa kicks a penalty during the Rugby World Cup 2019 final against England in Yokohama, Japan. (Photo: Craig Mercer / MB Media / Getty Images )

Something must give

It seems to suggest that something has to give. If Libbok is jettisoned as starter in favour of Pollard’s more reliable boot, it will pose other questions.

It’s almost guaranteed that Pollard will get some significant game time in the Boks’ final pool match against Tonga in Marseille on Sunday. The Boks have to win well and secure a try-scoring bonus point – precisely the scenario Libbok is best at.

He would certainly be able to spark the attack, but the trade-off is that Pollard needs minutes on the field if he is going to be used in the knockout stages.

The Boks have spent the better part of 10 months shaping their attacking game around Libbok’s visionary skill set. Bringing Pollard back as starter will therefore require a slightly different attacking approach. Pollard is a more direct flyhalf with fewer “soft” skills. And he has also played almost no rugby for nearly 18 weeks.

Erasmus said it would be unfair to expect miracles from Pollard. But that is precisely what might be needed.

The 2019 Rugby World Cup-winning flyhalf only returned to the playing field as a replacement for his English club Leicester last Friday, when he got in a respectable 30 minutes.

“Everyone must keep it in perspective,” said Erasmus. “Handré Pollard is not Superman and can’t come back as fully ready after playing only 30 minutes of rugby since his injury.

“He can’t just come on to the field to kick goals, he must also be able to sidestep, hand-off, make tackles, clean out at the ruck and that’s obviously not the case now because he has only had a full week’s training with us.

“That’s why he wasn’t up for selection for the squad in the first place, but he is definitely up for selection this week.

“Let’s give Handré a chance to find his rhythm and see how he does with the other stuff. Tonga will be a great yardstick to see how he goes.”

So, there you have it. The Boks are giving Pollard an audition against Tonga, to not only prove that he’s the better goalkicker, but that he can drive their attack forward as well as Libbok.

These are testing times for the Boks because one thing this squad is renowned for is planning and execution. Injuries to Pollard, Marx and others have hindered their planning and Libbok’s shakiness from the tee is an unforeseen problem.

Erasmus and coach Jacques Nienaber are adept problem-solvers, but they’re being squeezed into a corner over the most important position in the team, as RWC 2023 heads into the business end.

It’s not ideal, but no one, least of all Erasmus, expected it to be easy. DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • David Forbes says:

    It would be madness to replace Libbok. To me it would make sense to replace De Allende and Kriel, keeping Libbok at flyhalf, and putting Esterheysen at 12, and Pollard at 13. This way we keep the kicker and the skills that Libbok has shown at flyhalf.

  • Enzo Menegaldo says:

    We will not win the World Cuo with Pollard at flyhalf. A spot for him at outside centre, with Esterhuizen at inside centre might be an option, but we will not score tries without the creativity of Libbok and Lukhanyo Am missing.

    • Sven Leisegang says:

      Two comments already, both pointing to the centres being where we came short. Here comes #3.
      Stats via SuperSport:

      De Allende:
      Carries Meters – 18
      Carries Crossed Gainline – 2
      Clean Breaks – 0
      Passes – 2
      Offloads – 0

      Kriel:
      Carries Meters – 46
      Carries Crossed Gainline – 6
      Clean Breaks – 0
      Passes – 4
      Offloads – 0

      When I picture moments in the World Cup, I remember Am passing to Mapimpi.
      I also remember that fond flick backward from Am to Colbe. You know the one. It contained a side-step around a shoulder charging English player.

      Once in a while it would be nice to see a wing get given a pass, not just chase every high ball to get a sniff of the egg.

      People also hate on Le Roux, but this game showed what is lacking when he is missing. Willemse was good in managing from the back, but barely never came in as first receiver or breaking through the backline.

  • Coen Gous says:

    Have to agree with other comments posted. Manie is possibly the most exciting SA flyhalf I have seen in many a year despite Pollard’s obvious credentials. However, he also requires fast free-running centres to get to our outstanding wings. He is so unpredictable, and anything can happen when he is on the field. Such a pity about Am, and now Marx.

  • Rob Fisher says:

    What garbage!!!
    How many of the top teams have a kicker who is not the flyhalf????
    Just make sure that team selection includes a good kicker (and a bench OK kicker).
    Really it is not that hard.
    What has taken Nienaber and Rassie (with his orange light) that long to figure that out?
    Don’t blame Libbok. Blame the selection and coaches.

  • Rob Fisher says:

    Look for a kicking full back, playing somewhere around the world. Goosen? Kolbe? Willie Le Roux maybe.
    Which of our many scrum halves is a good kicker, Faf or one the others.
    Get them in the squad to practice and then practice some more!!!

  • Ernest Esterhuizen says:

    The world cup comes around once every 4 years. So they need to do what they need to do bring the Webb Ellis back home. However, what is, is more concerning is not playing in the Green and Gold colours. Those are the colours feared by the opposition. Those are the colours that get the South African crowd right behind them All our supporters have bought a green & Gold replica before the world cup and here the team plays in Checkers colours … One feels diconnected, sitting in Green and Gold, but the team playing in unfamiliar colours. They might as well also be called Proteas instead of Springboks.

  • Scott Gordon says:

    Hmm , why does the kicker have to be in the backline ?
    Scrum dudes too stupid?
    Never forgotten Scottish Capt , Nr 8 . Place ball upright on the centre spot , turned his back in the ball , turned and kicked it almost goal post height .
    Kicking the ball is the last resort as you have out run your team .
    Apparently a lost art in rugby world wide .
    I got to play rugby at Rugby School 70/72 . Mud and all .
    Penalty kicks , why so high over the bar ?
    All to do with how the ball is kicked . Spin both sides , same for back and front !

  • Jack Russell says:

    Start with Libbok, Pollard on the bench as a utility player who can cover a number of positions, if Libbok is missing kicks, bring Pollard on?

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