Sport

RWC 2023 ANALYSIS

RasNaber, the plan, and the Springbok kicker conundrum

RasNaber, the plan, and the Springbok kicker conundrum
Coaches Jacques Nienaber and Rassie Erasmus have backed Manie Libbok (right) in the absence of the injured Handre Pollard. Will they continue to stick to their plan with Pollard now fit and starting this weekend’s Pool B match against Tonga in Marseille? (Photo: Steve Haag / Gallo Images)

Jacques Nienaber and Rassie Erasmus have already won a World Cup. Which is why they will continue to stick to their plan. They know what they’re doing. They know that Manie Libbok’s goalkicking is not where it needs to be and they understand the frustration.

It was mid-August 2006. Jake White was under immense pressure to hold on to his job as Springbok coach. He was tired and jet-lagged as the Boks had just returned from the away leg of the Tri-Nations (as it was then) and had suffered a record 49-0 loss to Australia and two more defeats on the gruelling tour. 

The knives were out, yet White remained defiant. It wasn’t out of stubbornness (well, some stubbornness), but more out of total and utter belief and clarity in his plan.

That August morning, he and I were meeting with our publishers for his book, In Black and White, The Jake White Story. Naturally, the publishers were worried about whether there was even going to be a book at that stage. 

Congregated in the small room, we all got a sense of what a coach at the top of his game looks and sounds like, even if it’s only for a short time. The discussion centred on how we could get the book on to shelves in time for Christmas 2007. Publishers need about a six-month lead time for editing and production once the final manuscript has been submitted. 

rasnaber plan springbok

Faf de Klerk was unsuccessful with two shots at goal against Ireland in the crucial Pool B match in Paris last weekend. (Photo: Juan Jose Gasparini / Gallo Images)

That problem was largely solved as it was decided I would write most of the book by June 2007 and the rest of the manuscript would be submitted on an ongoing basis as the season progressed. 

The publishers were still antsy though, because this had never been attempted before — certainly not in South Africa.

White could sense their unease, so he made it simple. Simplification is the greatest tool of all successful people. “Look, the 2007 World Cup final is on 20 October. We will be there, and we will win it, so you work backwards from that date.” 

This was a man speaking just weeks after his side had lost 49-0. Everyone in that room sat up instantly. His unwavering, unflinching belief was infectious. The Boks were going to win in France, none of us doubted it. And they did. And we got the book on the shelves in time for Christmas 2007. 

Doubt is the enemy for RasNaber

The point of this story is that top coaches know what they’re doing. Their biggest enemy is doubt. There are thousands, no, millions, of voices out there telling them what to do, who to select and how to play. 

I’ve known coaches who bow to public, or even internal pressure, from executives who dislike public anger and try to intervene. The secret to being a successful coach is being able to block out that noise and focus on the plan you have devised, worked on and laid down as your roadmap. 

The best coaches have adaptability and flexibility, but they cannot deviate from their core philosophies on a whim. Great rugby teams are not built overnight, and considering the relative lack of time national coaches have with players at Test level, years of work can’t be cast aside because of public sentiment. 

Jacques Nienaber and Rassie Erasmus have already won a World Cup. Which is why they will continue to stick to their plan. They know what they’re doing. They know that Manie Libbok’s goalkicking is not where it needs to be and they understand the frustration.

They have backed Libbok this year because Handré Pollard was injured for the entire international build-up to RWC 2023, so they had to decide on a path. Libbok was the direction they took.

No alarms

Libbok offers so much in so many areas on the field, and even in terms of goalkicking, there were no alarm bells in terms of his United Rugby Championship (URC) numbers. That’s all Nienaber and Erasmus could go on when they first selected him.

When Libbok arrived at the Stormers before the 2022 season, his goalkicking was at 54%, according to stats supplied by his kicking coach, Gareth Wright.

In 2022, he scored 177 points in the URC with a 74% goalkicking success rate. In 2023, he again top-scored in the URC with 217 points at an 80% success rate.

He’s also succeeded under 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.

rasnaber plan springbok

Manie Libbok’s struggles off the tee at Rugby World Cup 2023 have been well documented. (Photo: Juan Jose Gasparini / Gallo Images)

These are the numbers and performances the Bok coaches used as a yardstick and they were comfortable with them, for good reason.

When you throw in those numbers, in addition to all the other skills Libbok brings — his outrageous touch-finders with both feet, accurate kick/passes and mazy running — his selection was actually one of the easiest RasNaber had to make.

RasNaber now face a test of their mettle because Libbok is struggling in a fundamental department. The return of the fit-again Pollard though, offers some comfort. It’s a good backup plan to the main plan.

Pollard 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 four years ago, 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 took to win the World Cup four years ago.

That was in 2019 though. Pollard is four years older and coming off a bad injury with no game time. Rassie Erasmus even said it: “He’s not Superman.”

Rugby World Cup hub: Poll standings, fixtures, player stats and news

Maybe, just maybe, the Boks are trying to win the World Cup a different way this time. The plan has hit some snags, but do they abandon it now? 

The 2023 World Cup Final is on 28 October in Paris. RasNaber have been working backwards from that date for a long time.

It sounds and feels familiar. There is comfort in that. DM

Gallery

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Nicholas Pickard says:

    Manie Libbok is such an exciting fly half and most Saffers enjoy his style of play. The complaints are surely not that the coaching staff didn’t have a reliable goal kicker that could be selected, nor with Manie if that’s not his strength, but rather that the coaches were well aware of this, and yet still apparently insisted that our unreliable goal kickers should kick for posts from very difficult positions. In those situations it made far more sense to kick for the corner (which our kickers can do well) for what would have been a higher chance of scoring off a line-out near the opposition try line (and for more points than a goal kick anyway). Opting to make the players on the day of the Ireland game continue to kick for poles from difficult positions (after a few easier misses) just seemed totally daft.

    • Paddy Ross says:

      Excellent comment. Tactically, play the game based on your flyhalf’s strengths no to his temporary weakness exacerbated no doubt by the ‘searchlight’ that is focussed on every kick for the posts that he takes.

  • Gareth Ochse says:

    Great article. Stick to the plan. Stick with Manie. Get the ball over the line.

  • Lindokuhle Mathenjwa Mathenjwa says:

    We just hope that they will win tomorrow!

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