When last have Springbok fans genuinely been excited about their team’s attacking play?
The South Africans have traditionally been cast as behemoths who only know how to scrum, maul, win their line-outs and win games through penalties.
But that is no longer the case, and it’s mainly due to one player: Manie Libbok.
It has been disrespectful – in fact, nauseating – to see how much criticism the Bok No 10 has had to endure over the last few days after missing three shots at goal in the 18-3 World Cup opening win over Scotland at the weekend.
There is no doubt that the man himself would have been hugely disappointed with two of those misses, which he should have slotted any day of the week.
The third, a long-range penalty, was an ill-advised decision as it was well out of his range – the
Boks would have been better off by kicking to touch on that occasion.
Sure, your first-choice goal-kicker should ideally have a success rate between 85 and 90%, but that isn’t always possible – not even British & Irish Lions series hero Morne Steyn was in that bracket throughout his Test career.
Some Bok fans are now longing for Handre Pollard’s return – which will only be possible in the event of an injury to someone else in the 33-player Bok squad – as he had shown his temperament at the 2019 World Cup, especially in the semifinal against Wales, where he booted over a stunning penalty from over 40 metres to clinch the 19-16 victory.
But it is refreshing to note that Bok coach Jacques Nienaber is fully on board the Libbok train.
When questioned about the goalkicks missed against Scotland and whether he was concerned about Libbok’s form, Nienaber replied:
“Not if he wins Man of the Match.”
If we delve deeper into that oneliner, you will understand that the Bok coach has embraced the fact that his team are striving to get to the next level.
Nienaber said in the build-up to the Scotland game that the South
Africans have had to evolve their approach from their “traditional” style to keep up with modern-day rugby.
“I think all the teams have improved since 2019 but World Cups are a bit different. You must have the ability to score points, whereas in 2019, you could grind it out with a good defence, a good kicking game, a solid set-piece. We have had to adapt,” Nienaber said.
Bok captain Siya Kolisi was also beating the same drum last week. “We have had to change a lot. We stuck to our core things – set-piece, scrums, physicality and kicking game – but there is no way we can win playing the same way we did in 2019,” Kolisi said.
“You would have seen this year how the boys played, some of the plays we used – we had to change some of them instead of playing the same way as the last time, which people have studied.
“We have had to change quite a lot in the way we played. It is quite exciting for us as players and for a lot of players in the team ... it gives us more freedom.”
These thoughts and styles really started gaining momentum on last November’s tour of Europe, where Damian Willemse was the starting flyhalf, while Libbok came off the bench – in the absence of Pollard.
Now that Libbok is entrenched in the No 10 jersey, his natural attacking game that we have seen at the Stormers is flowing into the Bok team and it is thrilling to watch.
I am still buzzing about the “no-look” cross-kick from Libbok to Kurt-Lee Arendse, who didn’t even have to break his stride to catch the ball and run in a delightful try at the Stade Velodrome on Sunday.
The array of skills that Libbok showcases in every Test is a joy to behold – left-footed chips, little grubbers, long passes and short passes, taking on the defence himself with ball-in-hand ...
He makes the Boks tick and is quickly transforming the backline into an unstoppable attacking force. On top of that, he never shirks his defensive duties, as Kolisi has pointed out.
South Africans are so used to World Cup games or big Test matches being tight affairs that they fear Libbok’s misses may prove costly in a semi or final.
But now they don’t have to only turn to a “keep things tight” or “grind it out” strategy to win scrum or maul penalties in a pressure situation.
Of course, slotting those three-pointers are vital and we all hope that Libbok doesn’t have to relinquish the kicking duties to other players for the rest of the tournament.
But someone noted on X (formerly Twitter) this week that All Black star Beauden Barrett didn’t always have the best goal-kicking ratio but won his team many Test matches with his magic with ball-inhand.
And don’t forget that Libbok totally outplayed Scotland flyhalf Finn Russell, who is regarded by many as one of the best pivots in world rugby at the moment.
Libbok’s attacking genius is worth more than goal-kicks to this Bok team.
And guess what? SA have not lost a Test when he has started ...