Nienaber faces pivotal poser for tour finale
Manie Libbok, with barely 40 minutes of Test action to his credit, can still be regarded as an international apprentice.
However, Springbok coach Jacques Nienaber is going to have a major poser when he sits down with the selectors to name the team for the final year-end tour match against England.
Libbok, 25, got only a handful of minutes when he came off the bench against France in Marseille – for his debut.
It was an unfortunate injury to World Cup hero Cheslin Kolbe early in the second half that thrusted Immanuel Libbok into the limelight against Italy at the weekend – for his second cap.
In his 34 minutes on the field, he kicked five conversions, made two carries and 12 passes.
However, it is not in the raw statistics that you will find his true value.
That is to be found in the quality of his passes and his role in setting up scoring opportunities.
Nienaber referred to it as “finding the balance”, but Libbok sparked the Bok backline in a way that was not seen this year.
His combination with Willie le Roux and Damian Willemse gifted the Boks a triple playmaker threat on the field.
“I thought the game drivers handled it well,” the Bok coach said of his playmakers, in what was a second-half rout – taking a six-point (18-13) half-time lead and turning it into a 43-point (63-21) rampage.
Asked specifically about Libbok’s performance in only his second Test, Nienaber pointed to a statement he made in the build-up to the Azzurri clash: “Manie is just one injury away from starting spot in the Bok team.
“Manie has worked really hard in the last couple of weeks,” the coach added.
“Siya [Kolisi] mentioned in the change room [after the match], he slotted in nicely in the team and every week he grew in confidence.
“He is coming on in leaps and bounds.
“I thought he was excellent when he came on.”
Nienaber, who had to call six additional players from the SA ‘A’ for the Test against England at Twickenham on Saturday, may well be tempted to start Libbok at No.10.
A risky move against a settled and battle-hardened team like England, who played to a 25-all draw against New Zealand this past weekend.
There will be changes to the matchday squad that demolished the Azzurri.
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Vincent Koch, Jasper Wiese, Cobus Reinach, Cheslin Kolbe and Andre Esterhuizen all returned to their French and English clubs – as Saturday’s clash against England falls out of the international Test window.
SA ‘A’ team captain Thomas du Toit, Ntuthuko Mchunu (both props), Marco van Staden (flank), Johan Goosen (flyhalf) and Grant Williams (scrumhalf) will all join the Boks as cover.
However, the big question is: ‘Will Nienaber be brave enough to start with Libbok?’
With Bulls wing Canan Moodie also called up, he could come into the frame in the spot vacated by Kolbe’s departure to Toulon.
However, it is likely that Makazole Mapimpi will return and Kurt-Lee Arendse will move to the right wing.
Esterhuizen’s departure, after a solid showing against Italy in his solitary Test on tour, opens the possibility of the Manie Libbok (No.10) and Damian Willemse (at No.12) axis being deployed at Twickenham, a combination that was very successful for the Stormers in the United Rugby Championship and resulted in Libbok being catapulted into the Bok picture.
Damian de Allende may not be everybody’s cup of tea as an outside centre, but in the continued injury-enforced absence of Lukhanyo Am, he can do with another run in the No.13 jersey – with Jessie Kriel on standby.
The one enforced change in the forwards will be at No.8, with Jasper Wiese returning to Leicester Tigers.
Evan Roos may get his long-awaited start after a couple of games off the bench, or Marco van Staden could be thrust straight into the frontline at Twickenham.
The underwhelming performances of Marvin Orie and Salmaan Moerat against Italy could result in a reshuffle of the pack.
Eben Etzebeth will start and his partner may well be Franco Mostert – who started at blindside flank, but moved to lock early in the second half.
Albertus Smith could start on the flank, as he has often done before with great success.
Du Toit is likely to get a spot on the bench, as he can cover both sides of the front row, while Williams will cover the scrumhalf vacancy on the bench.
However, Jaden Hendrikse will also feature in the team selection debate.
Possible Springbok team to face England: 15 Willie le Roux, 14 Kurt-Lee Arendse, 13 Damian de Allende, 12 Damian Willemse, 11 Makazole Mapimpi, 10 Manie Libbok, 9 Francois de Klerk, 8 Marco van Staden, 7 Albertus Smith, 6 Siyamthanda Kolisi (captain), 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Mbongeni Mbonambi, 1 Retshegofaditswe Nche.
Replacements: 16 Malcolm Marx, 17 Steven Kitshoff, 18 Thomas du Toit, 19 Marvin Orie, 20 Deon Fourie, 21 Evan Roos, 22 Jaden Hendrikse, 23 Johan Goosen.