Cape Town - The criticism that has been flying Manie Libbok’s way following the Stormers’ loss to Munster in the United Rugby Championship final last weekend will make you think that he is some no-hoper – but that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Yes, the Cape side’s general was unable to replicate his man-of-thematch performances from the quarter-final against the Bulls and semi-final against Connacht, but that doesn’t now mean that he should be left out of the Springbok World Cup squad.
In my Stormers player ratings immediately after the Cape Town Stadium final, I awarded Libbok a five, and described his display in the following manner: “Did well to read the play and snatch an intercept try early on. Had some good moments, but was indecisive at times when clearing his lines, with a couple of kicks charged down. Also missed a penalty at goal, and wasn’t able to spark the Stormers attack like he did in the quarter-final and semi-final.”
In retrospect, five was perhaps a tad harsh. Having watched the game twice since then, Libbok tried hard to make things happen for the Capetonians on attack – like he usually does – by probing with different types of kicks off the right and left boots, throwing long and short passes, helping out Damian Willemse at the back to launch counter-attacks and sometimes taking on the defence himself.
He made a fine start by anticipating a pass by Munster centre Antoine Frisch to grab the intercept try, but it seemed the harder Libbok tried, the more things didn’t go his way.
Most of the mistakes came in a defensive situation – including some poor clearing kicks and fumbling the ball going backwards – with the main one coming in the lead-up to Munster’s match-winning try when he dummied to kick with his left foot around the Stormers 22, only to shift to his right, and his effort was charged down.
But does one average game override everything else Libbok has achieved over the last two seasons, since he moved to the Stormers? He was the leading points-scorer in the URC in both campaigns, with 217 in 2022-23 and 167 in 2021-22, and was chosen as the Fans’ Player of the Year this season.
He has been at the heart of a total overhaul of the Stormers’ attacking game, where they used to follow the northern hemisphere box-kicking trend during the Covid-19 lockdown period, and are now considered arguably the most dangerous outfit in the URC due to their ability to strike from broken play and set pieces alike.
Libbok made his Test debut in the last five minutes of last year’s dramatic 30-26 loss to France in Marseille and acquitted himself well, and then made an eye-catching impact with his creativity with ball-in-hand in the second half of the next Test against Italy in Florence.
The 25-year-old pivot from Humansdorp in the Eastern Cape has clearly done more than enough to impress Bok bosses Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber, and was included in the squad for this week’s training camp in Durban.
Libbok offers something totally different to Handre Pollard, who is likely to be the first choice No 10 in France, and is more of a natural flyhalf than Damian Willemse, who seems to be better suited to inside centre or fullback.
Hopefully Libbok will get some game time in the Rugby Championship to remove any remaining doubt of his readiness for the World Cup …