South Africa is one of the most successful countries in rugby union history, and with that comes ruthless expectation from fans with anything less than a win not good enough, and sometimes even comprehensive wins are not good enough either.
The main concern was once the lack of inspiration and obvious predictability of the Springbok attack, but now that has changed with the main concern kicking at posts.
The Springboks come off a resounding 52-16 win over Wales last weekend, littered with brilliant tries in what was a dynamic attacking performance. Granted, it was against a very inexperienced Wales side, but instead of holistically celebrating the victory, fans rather ruthlessly expressed their concern about the goal-kicking, with Manie Libbok taking a heap of abuse that did not justify his overall performance.
The fans are not wrong. The Springboks and Libbok, in particular, have not been kicking well of late, and points off the tee are massive in Rugby World Cups. We saw that with Percy Montgomery in 2007 and Handre Pollard in 2019, however, supporters might be going about it all the wrong way and instead of tearing Libbok down now, they should be getting behind their man and here’s why.
It is important to contextualise Libbok’s rise to the Springboks squad, where he only made his debut against France last November. The South Africans were without Pollard for most of 2022, with Damian Willemse emerging as the first-choice 10 – a position he does not even play at the Stormers. Meanwhile, Libbok was already clear cut the best South African-based 10, but he was still not selected until absolutely necessary.
In less than a year, he has gone from uncapped to the only specialist fly-half in the squad, and for that, he needs support, not crucifixion, to get it right.
Now that he is in the Boks backline has a new lease of life. Libbok’s kicking for goal may be a frustration, but that should not cloud his will to fearlessly attack and create space for those around him.
So many Springboks fans have been calling for a player who can transform the team’s identity and unlock all the X-factor in the side and they have that in Libbok. The playmaker has a laser of a pass, he can take it to the line, kick off both feet and set up cross-kick tries, as was seen against Wales. The Stormers man caused huge headaches for defensive systems because he can do anything, making him unpredictable.
The Springboks have never lost a game in which Libbok has started (four), and the number of points and tries scored by the team in those games is clear evidence of his attacking influence.
Springboks v Australia: 43 points – 6 tries (2 penalty tries)
Springboks v Argentina: 22 points – 3 tries
Argentina v Springboks: 24 points – 2 tries
Wales v Springboks: 52 points – 8 tries (1 penalty try)
The South African attacking structure is currently transforming under him, which could make the defending champions a different beast entirely. This should not be overlooked.
THE MOVE!!! 🇿🇦
That pass from Manie Libbok! 😍 pic.twitter.com/vdXkzPpax9
— Jared Wright (@jaredwright17) August 21, 2023
As mentioned, the Boks fans are still right; goal-kicking is absolutely imperative to World Cup success, and Libbok will be wise to it. There is no doubt he is working as hard as he can to get it right.
Stormers kicking coach Gareth Wright had high praise for Libbok, labelling him as someone consumed by the game.
“Manie Libbok is probably the hardest working player that I’ve ever come across in terms of his ability technically to improve as well as time on the field physically,” Wright exclusively told Planet Rugby.
“He’s got a natural strike of a rugby ball, and he has the ability to find a way to improve this part of his game. I find it a privilege and an honour to work with somebody like that who keeps pushing the boundaries and someone who is consumed by the sport of rugby and finding the best way forward for him to succeed both at the Stormers and internationally.”
— Rupert Cox (@RupertCoxTV) August 22, 2023
For the Stormers, Libbok has shown he can bounce back from wobbles with the tee and produce the goods with important kicks, such as the winner against Ulster in the semi-final of the inaugural United Rugby Championship.
“He also has a unique ability to forget about a mistake and focus on the next moment, which is quite rare in players,” added Wright. “He doesn’t dwell on his mistakes very long, and he moves on to the next job as we talk about in rugby. So it is pretty unique, and it’s a great trait to have as a professional sportsman, and I think it has stood him in good stead, hence him playing at the highest level.”
Big Test against the All Blacks
With that being said, the proof is always in the pudding, and Libbok faces the biggest Test of his career against the All Blacks at Twickenham.
Both sides are almost at full strength, which will make for a fascinating warm-up match before the Rugby World Cup begins next month.
All eyes will be on Libbok to see how he matches up to Richie Mo’unga and whether his work rate off the kicking tee pays off.