Cape Town - The majority of rugby analysis tends to be around team selection and game-plans, but it’s often the less sexy parts of the sport that are the most important.
One of those is goal-kicking, and for Rugby World Cups in particular, having a sharp-shooter in your team is vital if you want to lift the Webb Ellis Cup.
The Springboks’ 2019 triumph in Japan will forever be remembered for the two thrilling tries by wings Makazole Mapimpi and Cheslin Kolbe.
Both instances saw true individual brilliance play its part. Mapimpi rounded off a spectacular move that saw good hands close to the left touchline by Lukhanyo Am and Malcolm Marx free up the Bok No 11, who put in a lovely chip that bounced perfectly for Am, and the outside centre delivered the coolest of passes back to Mapimpi to register the first ever South African touchdown in a World Cup final.
Then it was time for Kolbe to weave his magic. Am picked up a loose ball – after Marx drilled Henry Slade in a tackle – and flipped it from the ground to Pieter-Steph du Toit, who whipped it out to the No 14, who left Joe Marler and then Owen Farrell for dead with some dazzling footwork to dot down in the right-hand corner.
But the Boks may not have even made it to the final if it wasn’t for the accurate boot of flyhalf Handré Pollard. Arguably the most important three-pointer of his career came in the semi-final against Wales.
With the scores locked at 16-16 and four minutes to go, the Bok No 10 had to negotiate an angled shot at goal that was measured to be 44 metres in distance and about 10m from the left-hand touchline – but Pollard drilled it to end with 14 points on the night from four penalties and the conversion of Damian de Allende’s terrific try.
“You try to forget the situation and the external factors, but of course there’s pressure,” Pollard told the Rugby World Cup website about that kick after the match.
“But that’s why we train so hard. You imagine those scenarios over and over in your head.”
But what made Pollard’s kick even more special is the fact that he had only a 63 percent goal-kicking success rate coming into the semi-final, so he would have been feeling the pressure before kickoff.
Pollard finished the 2019 tournament as the leading points-scorer with 69, including the most penalties (16).
But how important will goal-kicking be for the Boks at the 2023 Rugby World Cup? Pollard is still clearly the first-choice flyhalf, and despite a lower leg injury ruling him out of the English Premiership semi-final for Leicester against Sale, it’s understood not to be too serious.
Pollard is enjoying a break in Cape Town at the moment after sitting out the Bok training camp in Durban this past week, but he is sure to rejoin the squad for the pre-Rugby Championship camp in Pretoria on June 11, ahead of the tournament opener against the Wallabies at Loftus Versfeld on July 8.
But the world champions need to develop back-ups as well in case Pollard goes down. The Boks tried all of Damian Willemse, Cheslin Kolbe, Faf de Klerk and Manie Libbok on the end-of-year tour of Europe last November.
Stormers star Libbok was the leading points-scorer in the United Rugby Championship for the second campaign in a row this season, and Springbok director of rugby Rassie Erasmus is confident that the Cape No 10 can deliver if needed.
“We do know Manie missed a few against Munster. But then a Manie from that other 80 breakdowns, where we must make decisions and put guys away, and do a little cross-kick,” Erasmus said.
“In a World Cup, you are right (that goal-kicking is vital). But Handré has done it for us there. Manie has done it, apart from that one URC game (against Munster), he’s got a good percentage record.
“And then Damian (Willemse) is probably the one where, because he has been playing 10, 12 and 15, you will have to have another good goal-kicker with him in the team when he is the main goal-kicker.”
Bok coach Jacques Nienaber added: “If you look at the Champions Cup final, La Rochelle won and I don’t think they missed a point off the tee that day, but Leinster hit the post twice.
“But that guy (Leinster flyhalf Ross Byrne) is a much better goal-kicker than Johnny (Sexton). What Johnny brings in terms of organising players – despite having a low 70-percent success rate at the poles, where Byrne is mid-80s – it’s almost like weighing that up.”
Another factor with the goal-kicking will be handling the sometimes hostile atmosphere in France, especially if the Boks face the hosts in the quarter-final – which is why Erasmus is glad that the South Africans got to experience such an environment in the 30-26 defeat to the French in Marseille last November.
“What I can say is, personally, that atmosphere in Marseille – as a player and a coach, where I sat next to the pitch with the reserves – that was for me… I don’t know if they whistled or made some kind of noise, but that can have a big influence on the players – that French crowd,” he said.
“It’s different to a tense Ellis Park crowd or a tense Aussie crowd who give you slang and trouble! That is why that Marseille Test was very valuable for us.”