Opinion: Manie Libbok, and Willie le Roux driving Springbok attacking evolution

Jon Cardinelli
Sprinboks opinion piece image 21 November 2022.jpg

The Springboks’ innovative performance against Italy will force England to second-guess their ideas about South African rugby ahead of a season-defining clash at Twickenham, writes Jon Cardinelli.

It’s hard to know what to make of Eddie Jones’ recent statement about South Africa’s style of play. Shortly after England drew with New Zealand, Jones dismissed the Springboks’ nine-try masterclass against Italy, and insisted that Jacques Nienaber’s side will revert to a more conservative approach when they arrive at Twickenham on November 26.

Jones has intimated that the Boks have used the past three Tests to lure England into a false sense of tactical security. I seriously doubt that Jones – who helped the Boks realise their full attacking potential during a successful 2007 World Cup campaign – is unaware of this team’s less publicised strengths. Knowing this, his latest statement could be viewed as another ruse.

Staying true to their structures

The truth is that the Boks have stayed true to their structures for the better part of the 2022 season. Indeed, it’s only in recent fixtures where they have started to complement their set-piece dominance and sharp tactical-kicking with a potent counter-attack and – most significantly – a ruthless showing in the opposition 22.

Before analysing the performance against Italy – and what it means in the context of the showdown with England – it’s worth noting that the Boks would not be where they are today if not for several injury setbacks.

Handré Pollard, Elton Jantjies and Frans Steyn were ruled out of the four-Test to Europe. If one or more of those fly-half options were available, Damian Willemse would not have started at number 10 against Ireland, France and Italy.

Prior to Pollard’s injury, Willemse was the Boks’ first-choice number 15, with Willie le Roux providing mpact from the bench. After Pollard hurt his knee in the first Test against Australia, and after Jantjies left the team to address his off-field issues, Willemse moved to number 10 and Le Roux back to number 15 with outstanding attacking results. The Boks won the next three Rugby Championship games by 16 or more points.

Cheslin Kolbe was backed as the starting full-back in the first tour match against Ireland, and enjoyed mixed success in the role. When Nienaber reverted to the Willemse-Le Roux combination at 10 and 15 for the marquee fixture against France, the Boks started to show some more teeth on attack. And with Le Roux moving into the starting role, Nienaber took the decision to give Manie Libbok the utility back spot on the bench.

Libbok took the opportunity with both hands. The Stormers fly-half made an immediate impact against France in Marseille, and was one of the standout performers in an inspiring second-half showing against Italy in Genoa.

The Bok coaches didn’t plan for this fly-half crisis. However, the introduction of new options at fly-half and on the bench, as well as the reinstatement of Le Roux – the backline general – has transformed the Boks into a multidimensional prospect.

To be clear, the Boks are still delivering in the key facets of the game. After a wobble against Ireland, the scrum and maul is back on track. Faf de Klerk has found form as the team’s go-to tactical kicker. The scrum-half’s improved distribution from the base has been one of the reasons why the Boks have asked so many attacking questions on the tour to Europe – even when playing against a formidable French defence.

Excellent decision-making

The decision-making of Le Roux and Willemse – and Libbok in the latter stages – has ensured that the Boks have converted more of their scoring chances. The attacking stats make for interesting reading.

The Boks were wasteful in the tour-opener against Ireland. Despite creating 10 scoring chances in the Ireland 22, they were only able to convert four into points. By contrast, the razor-sharp Irish scored on five of their six visits to the Bok 22.

Pieter-Steph du Toit was red-carded in the 12th minute of the clash against France. Instead of slowing the game down, the 14-man Bok side lifted the tempo and ran the ball back at the French defence.

The speed of the ruck-recycle was particularly impressive in that fixture, with the Boks taking three seconds or less to distribute the ball at 70% of their attacking breakdowns.

The Boks started poorly in Genoa, and only led 18-13 at half-time. Thanks to a second-half surge which produced 45 points and seven tries, the South Africans romped to a 63-21 victory – their biggest in the Nienaber-era.

The beauty of that second-half performance was the standard of the option-taking and the willingness to keep the ball alive. Le Roux, Libbok and Willemse linked up wonderfully on the counter-attack. Wing Kurt-Lee Arendse – who is primarily a full-back at the Bulls – went looking for work, scoring two tries and assisting in a couple of other scoring plays.

Overall, the Boks made 167 passes in 80 minutes. They continued to back their maul and scrum, but varied their attack after securing the put-in. From second phase, they looked to stretch the Italian defence in the wider channels.

Despite the impressive running and passing numbers, they still racked up 24 kicks from hand. Damian de Allende, playing at outside centre, completed several short kicks over the Italian line that yielded important net gains for the Boks.

So, what does this all mean for the coming clash against England?

Eddie Jones expects Boks to revert to type

Jones has dismissed the performance, and suggested that the Boks will be less expansive at Twickenham. The inference is that England’s defence will be harder to crack than that of the Italy, and that the Boks – after winning just seven out of 12 this year – will be wary of making too many mistakes.

Perhaps Jones is making the same mistake he made ahead of the 2019 World Cup final.

After that decider in Yokohama, everyone outside of South Africa declared that the Boks had changed their game plan in an attempt to surprise England. The reality was that the Boks built that 32-12 victory on scrum and gainline dominance, as well as accurate tactical kicking. When more attacking opportunities arose in the second stanza, the backline converted them into points.

The Boks will have to lift their intensity for a clash against England, and they will know that Jones’s side are equally desperate for a result.

However, they will arrive at Twickenham this Saturday full of confidence following a ruthless and at times innovative display against Italy. If they harness their traditional strengths, and if they vary their attacking play as they did in Genoa, then they will secure a big win.

In that event, Jones and co may be left scratching their heads. It wouldn’t be the first time.

READ MORE: Autumn Nations Series: Nine-try Springboks put Italy to the sword