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Craig Lewis

Pollard: I’m in a great space


Handré Pollard in SA Rugby magazine Handré Pollard in SA Rugby magazine

Handré Pollard is determined to make a meaningful impact for the Bulls and Boks after working his way back to fitness and form, writes CRAIG LEWIS.

Handré Pollard heads into the 2018 season with renewed perspective. Over the past two years, the young flyhalf’s professional trajectory has endured a rollercoaster of ups and downs that have sternly tested his resolve. However, towards the end of 2017, that graph began to stabilise on a distinctly upward curve. It saw Pollard not only regain fitness and form, but also reclaim the coveted Springbok No 10 jersey for the final three Tests of 2017. 

For those who know the character of the young man – he turns 24 on 11 March – it would have come as no surprise to see him back in the Boks’ starting lineup, albeit for the first time since the 2015 World Cup. That tournament represented the pinnacle of his fledgling career as he featured in all seven World Cup games at the age of 21, and yet he would quickly have to contend with a sobering lesson about the fragility of a professional sportsman’s career.

In a ‘freak’ pre-season training ground accident in early 2016, Pollard ruptured his knee ligaments and was ruled out of action for nine months. Facing such an extended spell on the sidelines, he took the opportunity to undergo surgery for a troublesome shoulder injury, but then suffered a severe infection that briefly posed the threat of amputation. After overcoming such a scare – which included weeks of antibiotic treatment in hospital – Pollard worked his way back to fitness and returned to Super Rugby action at the start of 2017, when misfortune struck again.

This time, he twisted his ankle during a training session, which required him to undergo surgery once again. It ruled him out for the remainder of Super Rugby and the June Test series against France.

Such a sequence of events left many outsiders questioning when – or if – Pollard would be able to rediscover the form that saw him widely hailed in 2015 as the next big thing in South African rugby.

Yet, when SA Rugby magazine catches up with Pollard, he reflects on this period of his career with a maturity that belies his age.

‘You can get caught up in a rugby bubble sometimes and it may seem like nothing else matters, but it’s also important to realise that there is more to life.

‘It’s something I grew to understand in 2016 with all the setbacks. To have friends, family and loved ones to share experiences with is just as important as rugby, so I’d definitely say the off-field challenges have helped put my life and career into perspective. I’ve learned a lot about myself over the past couple of years and I’d like to believe that I’ve come out the other side as a stronger person.’

After a 12-month period out of the game, Pollard knew it would take a healthy dose of mental strength to make a successful return to action last year, but it also quickly became apparent that it would require a period of readjustment.

‘No matter who you are, it’s always going to take some time to get your reactions and decision-making back to where they were,’ he says. ‘Then, just as I felt I was slowly getting back into my stride, I got injured again. But that’s part of the game; all you can do is keep working hard.’

With this in mind, Pollard dedicated his energy to renewed strength and conditioning training, while the Boks didn’t hesitate to draft him back into the national set-up to work closely with their medical team.

‘The standard we set with conditioning and the benchmark we strive for has increased,’ former Bok coach Allister Coetzee emphasised last September. ‘Handré has had to work very hard to regain his place in the squad. He wants to make an impact at Test level again and is putting in the extra yards to do so.’

When reflecting on the off-field work that was required, Pollard offers a wry chuckle.

‘We call it the “cheese-puffs squad”, which is the boys who need to lose some weight and get back to fitness. So, we were up early every morning to do extra training. But when you’re out of the group and not playing, you’ll do anything to get back into that Bok jersey. We know that getting back into the squad is the easy part, but to stay there is much harder, so you have to put in the work.’

That effort was duly rewarded when Pollard earned inclusion on the Boks’ bench for their Rugby Championship clash against the All Blacks in Albany. Any thoughts of a dream return were quickly dashed as he took to the field with the Boks trailing 36-0. By the end of the contest, they had slumped to a historic 57-0 defeat.

Pollard admits it was a brutal return to Test rugby after nearly two years out of the international arena.

‘I wouldn’t say there were nerves before the game, because you know what you are capable of, but you don’t want to let your country down. The pressure is mostly on reaching the standards you set for yourself and the most disappointing thing is if you’re unable to meet them. So, it was obviously a difficult day for myself and the team.’

After such a shocking result, the Springboks faced an inevitable torrent of criticism, while there were those who continued to question Pollard’s elevation back to the Boks after another extended period on the sidelines.

‘You can’t get too fazed about what people say,’ he says philosophically. ‘When it goes well, everyone loves you and when it goes poorly, they all hate you. So, I try to focus on my goals and play for the respect of my teammates. You quickly realise which people you can rely on during the tough times.’

Pollard’s on-field response was also emphatic as he produced a cameo off the bench in the Boks’ narrow one-point defeat to the All Blacks at Newlands in their final Rugby Championship clash. He would go on to start the final three Tests of the year against France, Italy and Wales.

‘Obviously we would have liked to have achieved more victories as a Springbok team last year, but I was pleased that I started feeling comfortable once again in a new system,’ he says. ‘It was also good to get some game time under the belt, and to finish the year injury-free.’

That enabled Pollard to enjoy a full pre-season with the Bulls, where he began to work closely with new coach John Mitchell, who has been tasked with executing a ‘turnaround plan’ at the Pretoria-based franchise. 

‘We’re learning a lot from Mitch and he’s brought in a lot of new things,’ says Pollard. ‘I feel like I’m in a great space physically and mentally, and I’m so excited for the season. We’re a young squad at the Bulls so we have to keep on soaking up as much as we can, but I truly believe we’re in the right hands.’

Word out of the Bulls camp suggests Mitchell is intent on ensuring the three-time Super Rugby champions continue to evolve their style of play, which includes embracing a more ambitious brand of rugby after a run of disappointing results in recent seasons. Pollard looks set to be a key figure in Mitchell’s new-look squad and the Bulls coach tells SA Rugby magazine he believes the youngster has all the natural talent to become an even better all-round player.

‘It’s still early in our working relationship, but it’s great to see that he’s eager to learn and wants to get better. He’s strong and physical too, which is impressive, and he’s quite an intuitive player who doesn’t need to overthink what he does.

‘Handré is in a great space and once you’re feeling fit and robust, you can focus mentally on the areas you want to work on,’ Mitchell says. ‘He is still a young player, and it’s important for us to keep helping him with his game management and how he combines with others. As good as it is to be intuitive, a little bit of homework can also help anyone become a better player.’

Although Pollard has been hampered by injuries over the past two years, it’s exciting to contemplate what progression he could make if he enjoys a long overdue injury-free spell of rugby.

Away from the game, Pollard also appears to have found a happy balance. Last December, he tied the knot with long-term girlfriend Marise and the fashionable flyhalf – who has an interest in architecture – also loves nothing more than heading out of the city to spend time in nature with friends or family.

‘I think it’s important to switch off from rugby sometimes, leave the phone behind and spend quality time with the people closest to you,’ he says.

It’s this balanced perspective that has also helped sharpen Pollard’s focus on the next career goal at hand, which is to ensure he makes a meaningful contribution to the Bulls’ Super Rugby campaign.

‘All our focus is on becoming better players and producing the results we as a Bulls team should be capable of. I’m just trying to improve by 1% every day and then hopefully it will all come together nicely. I’m working hard on the small things and aiming to achieve those consistent gains.’

Over the past couple of years, Pollard has also become aware of just how quickly things can change. It means the thought of featuring at his second World Cup in 2019 is relegated to the back of his mind. And at a time when an increasing number of younger players are contemplating overseas options, he remains steadfast in his desire to remain right where he is.

‘Obviously there are financial gains from going that route, but there is also a burning desire to play in South Africa and for the Springboks. As a rugby player, you can only play for a certain amount of time and that’s a reality, so I do understand why some guys go overseas, but this is where I want to be right now.’

– This article first appeared in the March 2018 issue of SA Rugby magazine. The April 2018 issue is on sale Monday, 19 March.

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