After a long injury lay-off, Handré Pollard is more determined than ever to show his worth, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Handré Pollard will remember 2016 for all the wrong reasons. Ruptured knee ligaments. Botched shoulder surgery, an infection, and a threat of his arm being amputated. Five weeks in a hospital bed while receiving intravenous antibiotics for up to seven hours a day.
Yet, the 22-year-old remains philosophical about the ordeal. Pollard prefers to focus on the positives of spending as many as 12 months away from the game for the first time. He speaks of his frightening experience in hospital as if it were another challenge. That said, he readily admits that it has altered his outlook on rugby and on life.
‘It forced me to think about a lot of things. Most of all, it made me realise just how privileged I am to play rugby,’ Pollard tells SA Rugby magazine. ‘Maybe I didn’t stop to think about it much before then. I had been playing non-stop since my junior days. I played three years of professional rugby without a break and when you do that, you can become complacent.
‘What happened last year was a reality check, though. It made me more determined than ever to be the best player I can be. I want to make every moment count. I want to be better this week than I was last week. That’s the attitude I’ve gained.’
Pollard recovered from that infection and then focused on rehabilitating his battered knee. Meanwhile, the Springboks slumped to eight losses in 12 Tests, a record that included their first defeat to Italy and a 57-15 hammering at the hands of the All Blacks.
At the start of the season, many South African rugby supporters felt that the Boks would cope with Elton Jantjies and Pat Lambie at first receiver. However, by the end of 2016, most were remembering the name of the player who wore the No 10 jersey at the 2015 World Cup.
Pollard laughs knowingly when it’s put to him that the fans – if social media is anything to go by – have not forgotten about him. That laugh says he will have to prove himself all over again in 2017.
‘This is a new beginning for me. I know I have to go out there and earn the respect of the players around me. Seven days is a long time in rugby. One weekend you’re the hero, and the next you’re the villain. I’ve been out of the game for 12 months, so maybe people have forgotten about me. It’s up to me to go out there and show what I can do.'
Former Bok coach Heyneke Meyer believes it’s just a matter of time before Pollard is reinstated as the first-choice No 10. The man who was a mentor to Pollard, first at the Bulls and later at the Boks between 2014 and 2015, is equally adamant the player’s best days are ahead of him.
‘Handré has been around for a while and sometimes we forget how young he is,’ Meyer says. ‘That said, he’s by far the best defensive No 10 in South Africa. That’s why I backed him from a young age and especially in those two Tests against New Zealand in 2014 when he was only 20. He’s a very physical player who’s not afraid to take on the line. It’s great to have a flyhalf like that.
‘All Blacks coach Steve Hansen and I have a great relationship, so I was able to chat to him after the Test in Wellington in 2014 and ask for his thoughts on Handré. Steve was almost in awe of the youngster. He said Handré was one of the best he had ever seen, and that he looked more like a New Zealand flyhalf than a typical South African 10.’
Meyer felt vindicated again when he backed Pollard, then 21, as his first-choice flyhalf at the 2015 World Cup. The pressure was on the Boks after their shock loss to Japan, and the coach may well have opted to back experienced players like Morné Steyn or Lambie, players who had been to a World Cup before and understood the unique pressure of the tournament.
‘There was a lot of hard talk after the loss to Japan,’ Meyer recalls. ‘We were under pressure as a team. I told Handré I would back him for the remainder of the tournament. He responded positively. You learn a lot about players in those situations. Some don’t want the ball, while others go looking for it. Handré thrived under the pressure; it brought the best out of him. He was the right guy for that World Cup, and he is the right guy to take the Boks to the next level in the coming years.’
The Boks went on to lose 20-18 to the All Blacks in their semi-final, despite the efforts of Pollard, who kicked five penalties. The experience of competing in that match, as well as the tournament as a whole, would have been invaluable to a player who could well go on to feature at the next three World Cups.
‘The World Cup is the pinnacle and it was a dream come true to be part of that tournament,’ says Pollard. ‘I look back now and remember how we came together after that game against Japan. That result was a shock, but afterwards we pulled closer together. You think, if you can get through situations like that you can get through anything.
‘That time I spent with the Boks was invaluable,’ he continues. ‘Those leaders, some of them legends of the game, are marked by a calm in the heat of battle. They never seemed to get stressed, even if we were behind in a particular game. That’s what I will take with me as a leader. It’s now my responsibility to keep the guys relaxed in what is a very exciting and at times emotional environment.’
In the injury-enforced absence of Adriaan Strauss, Pollard will lead the Bulls for the first part of the Super Rugby tournament. The decision has sparked some debate, given he is only 22 and will be looking to re-establish himself as a player after a long injury layoff. But there are some, like Meyer, who feel that Pollard was born to lead and the time is right to give him the reins.
‘I never had to worry about Handré battling under pressure,’ Meyer says of the player’s grace under fire. ‘It’s one thing I noticed when we did our psychological evaluations of the players and a few extra “pressure” tests in training. He’s very relaxed.
‘He’s grown up with that pressure; if you remember that in South Africa some of the schoolboy derbies are immense. Much was expected of him even at the age of 19 when he was drafted into the SA U20 side, but he helped the team win the World Championship, and later became captain.’
Pollard admits that the challenge will be different at the elite level. ‘I enjoy being in a leadership position. While I’m optimistic about the 2017 season, I realise some patience will be required, in terms of this young Bulls team and me as a leader. It will take time for things to settle. Overall, I think this will be a good experience for me. It will keep me on my toes.’
SA Rugby will need to ensure Pollard is managed at franchise and national level. The Boks will need their premier pivot firing in the big games of the 2017 Rugby Championship and eventually at the 2019 World Cup.
‘Injuries can be frustrating and you never wish them on anyone, but perhaps it was good for Handré to have a long break in 2016,’ says Meyer. ‘His body would have benefited from the time off, and he would have had the chance to look from the outside. Sometimes that can give you another perspective.
‘You have to ask, though, if he played too much rugby in the lead-up to his injury. It’s a concern when you think about how physical he is, how he takes on the gainline as an attacking player and how he opts to tackle big players heading down his channel. You want him to be involved in as many big games as possible, but you also want him to play at the highest level for the next 10 years. You need to manage him well to ensure he doesn’t battle with injuries over the next few seasons.’
At this stage, Pollard is focused on 2017. He’s determined to regain form and boost the Boks up the World Rugby rankings.
‘I watched a lot of rugby on TV while I was laid up,’ he says in reference to the Boks and their woeful 2016 performances. ‘It was frustrating to sit at home knowing I could do nothing to help. I see the coaches have taken a lot of the flak, but I believe we as players must take some responsibility. We will have a lot to prove this year.
‘There are some small boxes I want to tick along the way,’ he adds. ‘I want to get back to my physical best and to play some good rugby for the Bulls. Other than that, I want to do enough to get back into the Bok mix, because that’s why we play the game: to represent our country at the highest level.’
SA'S OTHER FLYHALF CONTENDERS
PAT LAMBIE (56 Tests)
The last time Lambie started three consecutive Tests at No 10 was in 2014. Injuries and the player’s fluctuating form have contributed to an inconsistent run with the Boks. In 2016, the Sharks’ pivot missed most of Super Rugby due to a shoulder ailment. He was, nevertheless, installed as Allister Coetzee’s vice-captain and first-choice flyhalf before the first Test of the season against Ireland. Unfortunately, Lambie was concussed after a collision with Ireland flanker CJ Stander in the first half. Overall, Lambie played six Tests in 2016, starting at flyhalf on just three occasions (his other two starts were at fullback). The 26-year-old will have plenty to prove, in terms of fitness and performance, in the lead-up to the June Tests against France.
ELTON JANTJIES (11 Tests)
Many felt that Jantjies deserved the Bok No 10 jersey on the basis of his sublime attacking form with the Lions in the 2016 Super Rugby tournament. The 26-year-old made his comeback to Test rugby – after a four-year absence – from the bench in the first international of the season, against Ireland. Jantjies went on to start six consecutive games at flyhalf, and seven overall in 2016. By the end of that stint, however, most were in agreement regarding his weaknesses on defence and in the kicking department. This year, Jantjies must show an improvement in these areas if he’s to be considered for Test rugby.
– This article first appeared in the March 2017 issue of SA Rugby magazine
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