A penny for the thoughts of Manie Libbok as he prepares for the biggest game of his career to date in the South Africa number 10 jersey as the world champions take on Ireland at the Stade de France on Saturday night (8.0, Irish time).
He didn’t offer many insights into his mindset when put up for media duties at the Springboks’ hotel in Presles, a town 30 kilometres north of Paris. That was his prerogative and understandable as he looked to dim the spotlight.
It’s not what Libbok says but what he does that carries the greater currency. It’s been that way since he made his debut against France in November last year. The focal point for his critics has been his placekicking statistics, down in the mid-60s in percentage terms at Test level. He landed just two from five in the opening World Cup match, an 18-3 win over Scotland. Faf de Klerk took over off the tee that day in Marseilles.
South African captain Siya Kolisi defended Libbok’s placekicking after the Scotland game, a supportive stance that his team-mate will have appreciated, but the outhalf will be aware that winning softens the glare.
The Springboks also have other placekicking options, namely de Klerk, wing Cheslin Kolbe and fullback Damien Willemse – although none of them are prolific in accuracy terms –, so Libbok doesn’t need to suffocate beneath the responsibility, nor allow it to compromise his playmaking qualities, which are considerable.
Originally the only outhalf in the squad, he has been joined by the World Cup-winning pivot from four years ago, Handre Pollard, who has parachuted into the squad with some lateral thinking following an injury to hooker Malcolm Marx.
Pollard has played half a game for the Leicester Tigers in 15 weeks because of injury but if Nienaber had any doubts about Libbok he could have opted to put Pollard on the bench for Saturday’s game against Ireland. Instead he scotched that suggestion well before the team announcement. The 7-1 split is a material endorsement.
Libbok’s placekicking issues can’t distract from his all-round game and, for those who subscribe to statistics to support an argument, he is among the best in several categories for Test outhalves. The no-look kick-pass for Kurt Lee Arendse’s try against the Scots was a virtuoso piece of skill but it also demonstrated Libbok’s strong mindset in separating general play from the kicking tee.
Looking at the metrics from last November to the start of the World Cup, he is in the top five for try assists and line-break assists, and he is in the top three – which includes Johnny Sexton – for personal line-breaks. He averages over 50 metres in running terms, per match.
Sitting alongside Kolbe in the Vanneaux Golf and Spa resort, Libbok could have predicted one or two lines of inquiry, particularly the one soliciting his view on Sexton.
“Johnny is a great player; he has done amazing things for Ireland over the years. For myself, I am focused on my game, and I am preparing to the best of my ability to be ready to go on Saturday. It’s going to be a nice challenge and I am looking forward to it.”
Libbok couldn’t be tempted to stray from the belief that less is more when it came to questions. “It is exciting, it is an international match and we are playing against a top team in Ireland, and it is going to be an awesome game.”
Helping the Stormers to win the 2022 United Rugby Championship title and to get back to the final where they were beaten by Munster means that Libbok is very familiar with Saturday’s opposition. “It is obviously nice to know some of the Irish players through the United Rugby Championship, but it is an international match this coming weekend and they are going to be at their best, as we will be.
“It’s going to be an awesome game, awesome experience, it is the World Cup, the biggest stakes in world rugby and I am just grateful to be in a position to go out there and represent my country.”
In terms of personal preparation, the outhalf said he wouldn’t change his routine. “I treat every game the same. I will prepare as much as I can and as hard as I can to be in the best possible position to go out there and perform for the team. I just treat this week the same as I treat all other weeks.”
And finally, there was a light touch to a question that largely skirted around placekicking. Libbok said: “My whole game is going to be important, every part of it, kicking, kicking out of hand, attacking with ball in hand. I am working hard on my basic skills, kicking to posts; I am putting in a lot of hard work on it to get it right.”
That’s all he can do. Well, that and kick his goals.