Libbok can take Springboks to new heights… if Nienaber is willing to risk it


Jacques Nienaber is a self-identifying ‘numbers guy’. He sees the game of rugby as if he’s plugged into the Matrix. That isn’t a hulking loose forward with a monstrous carry. He’s a cluster of code and data, a collection of metrics and percentiles. Something to plug into an algorithm to find the square root of X.

Which is why it was hard to believe him when he claimed ignorance regarding the kicking stats of Manie Libbok following his side’s 52-16 demolition of Wales in Cardiff on Saturday. When asked if the numbers – 56% from the tee after missing two penalties and three conversions – were a concern, Nienaber wore the look of a student whose dog had eaten his homework.

This is understandable. In the absence of the injured Handre Pollard, Nienaber has one genuine fly-half at his disposal. Of course, if the rumours are true, Pollard could yet return to the World Cup squad but for now Libbok is the the only designated driver from 10.

Nienaber has to defend his player and has shown great man management by swatting aside barbs from the press. What’s more, the rest of Libbok’s game is on fire. Let’s not focus on Nienaber’s faux incredulity. Instead let’s call upon the rest of the South African rugby loving public to get on board and place their faith in a maverick 10 who might fluff a few shots at goal, but who has taken this side to a place it’s never been before.

Since his Test debut against France last year, Libbok has a 62.9% success rate when kicking at goal. Only Blair Kinghorn and Damian McKenzie have been more wayward of all the tier 1 place-kickers with 15 or more shots at goal since the 2019 World Cup. Pollard, for what it’s worth, is at 78.1% from 73 attempts.

But goal-kicking is just one job on Libbok’s extensive KPI chart. Since that four minute cameo in Marseille, which was followed by impressive displays against Italy and England during the Autumn, Libbok’s numbers stand up to the best 10s in the world.

Only Paolo Garbisi, Romain Ntamack and Finn Russell have more try-assists per 80 minutes. Only Garbisi, Owen Farrell and Tommaso Allan produce more line-break assists and he’s joint-top with Johnny Sexton and Richie Mo’unga with personal line-breaks. Most impressive of all is that despite only carrying from 11% of his touches, he makes an average of 51.9 metres with ball in hand per game. That’s more than any other 10 since November last year.

Stats Perform, who supplied the metrics above, are unable to prove whether or not Libbok holds on to the ball longer than most fly-halves, or if he receives it from a shallower base. But the crude eye test from the vantage of the press box would suggest that he has narrowed the gap between himself and the scrum-half who feeds him. As such, the men outside him are onto and through the onrushing defence at a much greater rate with plenty of support arriving off the shoulder.

The Springboks are clearly a more attacking force this year. They’ve been loose at times, and there is still a reliance on Willie le Roux to pull strings from fullback, but Libbok deserves immense praise for the way he’s injected life into an outfit that is still erroneously labelled as one dimensional with ball in hand.

Libbok’s numbers compared to Pollard’s certainly prove this transformation. The understudy averages more try assists, carries, metres made, line breaks, offloads, passes and break assists than Pollard per game. He also kicks more with 6.4 kicks per game compared to Pollard’s 5.8 and dwarfs Pollard’s kicking metres per game with 118 to 66.

Pollard’s tackle success is better than Libbok’s, but only just at 78% to 73% – which rubbishes the assertion that Libbok is a liability in this department – and has a marginally better time when winning and defending against turnovers.

None of that will matter to those who have decided that the only way the Springboks can defend their title is with a reliable goal-kicker. And here, despite what Nienaber may want you to believe, the stats don’t look good for Libbok.

He particularly struggles out wide. Few kickers, if any, are as accurate when shooting from an acute angle but Libbok has a tougher time than most. When taking aim near the trams he is successful just 50% of the time. His record from more than 45m away is also 50%.

Which means in a World Cup knock-out game, with the clock ticking down and South Africa adrift by two points, Nienaber and his on-field captain might as well flip a coin if the referee awards them a penalty in the above regions. Is that a gamble they’re willing to make? What’s the most you’d bet on a heads or tail call?

Ultimately this comes down to perceptions. About antiquated concepts and tried and tested truths. There is no right way to win a World Cup but there are plenty of blueprints on how to lose one. Just ask François Trinh-Duc.

The dynamo fly-half very rarely steers their team to victory. Dan Carter was a Rolls Royce and Stephen Larkham, despite his abilities, was more metronomic than flashy. The other World Cup winning 10s in the professional era could be placed in the “stable and reliable” category. This might read like a sleight, especially to Jonny Wilkinson and Pollard himself, but do any of them make your heart-stopping XV?

If Pollard is fit, which it seems certain that he is, he will start in every important game for South Africa. Libbok will then be used as an impact player, if at all given Damian Willemse’s versatility and the hard to resist tactic of loading the bench with six forwards.

It would be a shame if Libbok is consigned to carry tackle bags and shadow box on the training pitch. He’s a generational talent, certainly in South Africa, and has proven his ability to win titles as he did with the Stormers in last year’s United Rugby Championship.

His numbers underline his enterprise but he’s more than just a collection of metrics and percentiles. He’s a 10 that nudges your bum to the edge of your seat every time he touches the ball. He compels involuntary sounds from your mouth and has you grabbing your mate next to you as you yell, “did you see that?!” He’s a pulse-setting hot-stepper who paints with all the colours of the wind. No amount of missed goal kicks will change that.





Source link: https://www.rugbypass.com/news/libbok-can-take-springboks-to-new-heights-if-nienaber-is-willing-to-risk-it/

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