WATCH: Skills coach Labeeb Levy explains how Stormers tweaked game and why Manie Libbok is like ‘The Matrix’



Published May 27, 2023


Cape Town – The Stormers are on the brink of winning a second successive United Rugby Championship title, but it hasn’t been an easy road to the top.

Apart from the well-publicised off-field problems in the boardroom, the Capetonians had developed from a team that placed a big emphasis on kicking before and after the Covid-19 period to a well-balanced team.

They are able to take on the opposition with ball-in-hand, cross-kicks, chips and grubbers and through a physical pack of forwards, while their rush defence system has also created several points-scoring situations as well.

But being able to switch into attack mode when an opportunity arises has showcased their wide array of skills, and the man operating in the background in that regard is Labeeb Levy.

A celebrated club coach at Bo-Kaap club SK-Walmers, Levy is also a major part of the touch rugby and sevens world in Cape Town and across South Africa, and has brought those elements into the Stormers set-up as the team’s skills coach.

Speaking to Independent Media ahead of Saturday’s URC final against Munster at Cape Town Stadium (6.30pm kickoff), Levy said the coaching group under John Dobson have worked continually as a collective to mould the current side into a unit that look comfortable when pulling off some unbelievable passages of play.

One of the tries scored by Manie Libbok in the semi-final against Connacht was such an example, with a quick lineout throw-in from their own 10-metre line ended with the flyhalf dotting down, while Hacjivah Dayimani’s behind-the-back offload in the closing stages saw the crowd roar their approval.

“I did research globally in terms of what the role entailed, as no unions in South Africa really had such a role. But I was in contact with people overseas, and we worked on it – catch and pass, mini-units and how to integrate the individual skill enhancement into the big picture,” Levy said.

“With that, the process was to integrate it into the training plan. It wasn’t specifically skills – it was always this, that and the other. But then they allocated time weekly and daily somewhere along the line, so there was an emphasis on it.

“I come from touch rugby and sevens, and there we don’t do breakdown and lineout. We do just catch and pass, spatial awareness, ball movement… anything to create time (on the ball), because if you look at the game and take a picture and block out the opposition, it’s just one person passing to the next – taking the decoys out.

“I won’t say there was a deficiency, but in certain places, people took it for granted that players were at that level (required in terms of skills). But there was massive potential for improvement, as opposed to there being a weakness.

“The players we had at the time were different. A lot of them had just come from the World Cup, which was not a challenge… but it was a different style that they came with.

“So, as a coaching unit, that was part of the challenge – for Dobbo especially – and for us to try and tweak the game that suits the way we play it in Cape Town… want ons wil die ball hardloop (because we want to run the ball).

“Dobbo coming from UCT has got that brand, Dawie Snyman is also into that, and me here. But Dobbo also wanted to build a pack that could give us penalties, and we had Kitshoff, Bongi, Frans, Pieter-Steph, JD Schickerling, Salmaan was up and coming.

“So, it made sense to also use the pack to gain possession, and see how we could enhance it.

“But then Covid hit, which was quite a snag as we had to have a year of creativity, which actually worked from a skill perspective because all of a sudden, people had to do online stuff at home – whether it was tackling, passing, catching, you had to do it alone.

“Shadow-ball, tennis-ball exercises, which actually helped a bit. But it was tough as it’s about self-motivation, and maybe there were one or two guys who did nothing!

“And when we came back from Covid, you could only train with four or five guys on the field, which helped a lot.

“With time, some players left, and the recruitment was a bit smart – whether it was deliberate or via osmosis, it just happened – and we had guys like Herschel, who was very skilful, Paul de Wet was superb with his skills. Damian Willemse, great player, and a young Sacha coming through.

“But then Warrick Gelant came and brought something to the party, and I really enjoyed working with him. He had a different mindset and had different coaches up in Pretoria, with John Mitchell in particular.

“We would challenge each other from a flair perspective, because people are competitive. He got a knee injury, but he was quite influential in that perspective. Then Manie came, and he is also just naturally gifted – the understanding of what he wants, how he wants to play.

“From a coaching perspective, Dawie in particular, evolved the attack. It was a constant evolution until we found the niche.”

Libbok is the creative genius who pulls the strings for the Stormers on attack, whether it is with the boot, a pass or using his own pace to spark something.

Levy feels that the Stormers No 10 should also be in the Springbok World Cup squad.

“You will see the guys working in little groups – Manie, Herschel, Dan, Blommetjies. Before the game, at the hotel… my shoulder is sore and I have to actually go for a scan, because I have to pass 400 balls to Manie!” Levy laughed.

“We just do catch-pass, catch-pass, left and right… probably more than 400 balls. But he wants to go through that as he’s got his routine. He is the ultimate professional.

“Before an Edinburgh game in Scotland, it was dark and raining. But him and Warrick walked barefoot on grass because they wanted to activate their feet so that it could wake up, and see the skies – things that people won’t think about.

“With Manie in particular, he’s by far the most hand-eye co-ordinated person that I’ve coached – naturally and working on it. He’s like a top-class cricketer… his reflexes are amazing. It’s almost like you can’t break him. It’s like The Matrix I call it! The ball comes to him in slow-motion, and he’s yawning or drinking coffee, and then catches the ball.

“He is always trying to be two phases ahead in a game, which is why he catches the opposition off-guard. He already knows where you are as he studies you in the week already, and then boom! He also likes to release the ball, and hammers that on the players.

“His tackling has improved also, as you don’t just get past him. He is one of my favourite players in the world. He’s humble and must stay like that for the weekend, calm… There will be pressure, but he will prevail and hopefully have a good game.

“It’s impossible for them not to select him for the Springbok World Cup squad – it would actually be criminal if they don’t pick him. And it’s not that I am trying to promote him. Any rugby person of any country would look at him. If he must play in New Zealand now with his current form, they would pick him, England would pick him. There would probably be a riot if he’s not in the Bok squad!”