Handre Pollard is a once-in-a-generation player and fearless leader who appears destined for greatness, writes JON CARDINELLI in the latest SA Rugby magazine.
There was a time in 2019 when an injury-ravaged Siya Kolisi doubted whether he was the right man to lead the Springboks. Fortunately, he found some support in the shape of Handre Pollard.
‘I wasn’t yet at my best when I played against Argentina in Pretoria and then against Japan in the World Cup warm-up,’ the captain tells SA Rugby magazine. ‘I was asking myself whether I might be a liability at the tournament itself. I tend to ask for help when I need it on the pitch, but on this occasion I tried to get through the issue on my own.
‘Handre could see that I was stressing and I needed help. He came to me and gave me affirmation. He told me that he would take charge if I needed him to. I had to focus on my own game at that stage and so Handre lifted some of the weight from my shoulders.
‘I don’t think I could have got to where I was in the World Cup playoffs without his help,’ Kolisi continues. ‘Handre had a big impact on me in that campaign. His support gave me a lot of confidence.’
Bok assistant coach Mzwandile Stick notes how Pollard has grown into this role over the past few years.
‘We’ve been following this story since Handre was a schoolboy,’ Stick says. ‘As coaches, we’ve never doubted his potential. What we’ve seen over the past two years is how he’s started to make the move from potentially great to actually great.’
Lood de Jager remembers the first time he met Pollard at a Bok training camp in 2014. The widely held perception of Pollard as an arrogant and overhyped schoolboy was wide of the mark.
‘Like everyone else in South Africa, I’d heard about this teenage sensation who had won the Junior World Championship as well as the U20 World Rugby Player of the Year award,’ the Bok lock says. ‘When I first saw him, I thought that he might be arrogant.
‘We clicked from our very first interaction, though. Back then, we were the youngest guys in the squad and were forced to sit next to each other at the front of the bus. We spoke a lot of nonsense and had a few laughs.’
Kolisi points out that some people mistook the youngster’s innate confidence for arrogance. Pollard‘s self-belief and clear intent served him well when he fronted the All Blacks that year – and certainly when he battled England in the World Cup final some five years later.
‘He refused to be intimidated,‘ says Kolisi. ‘He knew exactly what he wanted from the moment he stepped on to the training field. You tend to draw energy from a person like that. He was a natural leader, even at the age of 20. It was in his personality to take charge, both in terms of organising the team and through leading by example. I think that when he scored those two tries against the All Blacks [at Ellis Park] people started to realise that he was worth the hype.’
De Jager has mixed feelings about the 2015 season. The Boks lost to Argentina and Japan for the first time, and finished third at the World Cup in England. De Jager – the 2015 SA Rugby Player of the Year – and Pollard were among a small group of South Africans who left the global tournament with their heads held high.
‘People talk about players who show composure and resilience to win the odd game,’ says De Jager. ‘I think that more could be said for the guys who stay cool in the wake of big disappointments and setbacks. They stand up when the going gets tough. They find a way to push through it all and come back stronger.
‘I’ll never forget the loss to Argentina at Kings Park in 2015. Handre missed several kicks at goal. Pat Lambie was sitting on the bench, and the crowd started to chant ‘‘Lambie! Lambie!’’ to encourage Heyneke Meyer to send Pat on to the field. That really hurt Handre.
‘He didn’t travel to the 2015 World Cup as the first-choice flyhalf. Things changed after the loss against Japan in Brighton, though. Heyneke spelled it out in no uncertain terms: Handre had to steer the team to a win against Samoa or South Africa were out of the World Cup. That was a lot to ask of a 21-year-old, but Handre embraced that responsibility from the moment he received it.’
Pollard suffered a series of injuries after that tournament. By the time he returned to the Boks in late 2017, he’d been out of the international game for two years.
The time away, as De Jager explains, forced Pollard to realise how fast things can change and why he should treat every game as if it’s his last.
‘I’ve had my own struggles with injuries,’ the lock says, referring to a series of long-term setbacks that have cost him a number Test caps. ‘It may have been different for Handre, as a guy who enjoyed a lot of success straight out of school and always seemed destined for great things. He went to the World Cup. Then he tore knee ligaments. Then he injured his ankle. He was sidelined for the better part of two seasons. That’s a life-changing experience.
‘After every Test match, your phone doesn’t stop buzzing with calls and WhatsApp messages. When you’re on the long comeback trail, however, sometimes the only people you hear from are your wife and your mom. It forces you to reflect about life and what you want out of it. You’re forced to grow. When you spend a lot of time out of the game, you tell yourself that you will never take a single match for granted again.’
The Boks noted a change when Pollard returned during the latter stages of the 2017 season. The team, as a collective, started to play with more direction with him starting regularly at No 10.
‘He was stronger mentally,’ says Kolisi. ‘Fearless is probably the right word. Nothing could break him. As we gained momentum in 2018, and then throughout the 2019 season, he became unstoppable.’
Stick notes how most players like to relax immediately after a big Test. Pollard, however, went looking for work regardless of the result.
‘He’s always bugging the analysts at around 11pm after a game. He wants to review his performance or to get started on his own analysis. He’s a gifted player who has had a lot of success, but he’s worked bloody hard for it.
‘The morning after a game he’ll come looking for the coaches. Credit needs to go to Rassie for creating an environment where players can engage with the coaches and contribute ideas. Handre is always pushing and challenging and asking questions.’
When SA Rugby magazine relays the comments made by his teammates and coaches, Pollard goes out of his way to describe himself, and any perceived individual success, as a result of a world-class environment.
‘That’s the brilliant thing about the culture that Rassie created,’ Pollard says. ‘There was total honesty and transparency at that World Cup. If you had something to say, and if you wanted to challenge someone, you did it in front of everyone. There were no one-on-ones behind closed doors.
‘I’m not going to lie to you, there were some tough times when guys had a go at one another. And that’s what you need if you want to sort things out and find a solution. It’s probably one of the reasons why we did as well as we did.’
Pollard looked for ways and means to improve over the course of the World Cup in Japan. His relationship with second-choice flyhalf Elton Jantjies – who played a key off-field role in preparing the team for the playoffs – provided him with a different perspective.
‘That’s the kind of thing people won’t see,’ says Kolisi. ‘Elton was forever talking to Handre about opposition players and tactics. Neither Elton nor Handre viewed each other as a rival in that set-up. They simply saw it as a case of working together for the same cause.’
Pollard, of course, was tasked with organising the team on the park and making the big calls. He was always going to be judged by how his he amplified his teammates rather than his own individual performance.
‘He’s the player who has to sum up the situation in a fraction of second and make a decision,‘ says Stick. ‘He’s got to look at the players around him and decide how he’s going to organise them and use them to the team’s benefit. It’s something he really relishes.’
Bok centre Jesse Kriel, who has been Pollard’s teammate since they starred for the SA Schools side in 2012, reveals how each of Pollard’s decisions can shape the way the Boks attack.
‘He’s very physical and has a bullet of a pass. He also has good feet and has the ability to draw the defender and create the space,’ the No 13 says. ‘That makes all the difference for us on the outside. He knows what works and what wins Test matches, and he backs his teammates. In turn, we have a lot of confidence in his leadership.’
There have been occasions, of course, where victory or defeat has hinged on one aspect of Pollard’s performance. The Bok flyhalf slotted a late penalty against Wales to steer South Africa into the World Cup final. In the decider itself, he recovered after an early miss to kick his team into a strong and ultimately winning position.
‘If you look at how many World Cup finals have been decided by penalties or drop goals, you will understand why we invested so much into that aspect of the game,’ says Stick. ‘And that’s how it played out in the final in Yokohama. Most people will remember the tries scored by Makazole Mapimpi and Cheslin Kolbe in the second half, which really took the game away from England.
‘One cannot forget the platform that was laid in the first half by the forwards, who really set the tone and forced England to make mistakes. You still need someone to translate each opportunity into points, and to build that scoreboard pressure. Handre missed the first shot at goal, but bounced back magnificently. It was the difference if you think that we kept our noses in front. England were forced to chase the game because of his accuracy.’
Kriel – who missed the latter stages of the tournament due to a serious injury – watched the final from the stands. He never doubted that Pollard’s resolve would be a factor in a game of high stakes.
‘Handre handles the pressure better than any player I’ve seen. He’s so sure of his ability and that always comes through in the big moments. If I had to put my house on someone to win a game for me, Handre would be my guy.’
When the final whistle blew, Pollard’s immediate reaction was to leap into the arms of Frans Steyn. That moment provided a glimpse of the man behind the iron mask of composure. That win, after all, represented a triumph on so many levels.
‘You’re right, I don’t usually wear my heart on my sleeve,’ Pollard says when I ask him about the reaction six months later. ‘I’m not that kind of guy. But if you are going to show some emotion, the World Cup final is the time to do it.
‘When the final whistle blew I turned and Frans was the first guy I saw. I just jumped right into his arms. What made it even more special for me was that I’d watched Frans win the 2007 World Cup when I was 13 years old. He was one of my heroes growing up. The fact that I got the chance to win a World Cup alongside my hero was massive for me.’
This team has the potential to improve, as does its first-choice flyhalf, who will be 27 when the British & Irish Lions come to town in 2021 and 29 at the 2023 World Cup. Stick is excited about what the future may hold.
‘What made Dan Carter, Jonny Wilkinson and the rest truly great? They performed at a high standard for a long time. Handre has the same hunger to excel. There are a lot of young-ish players in this squad, and I think they all realise that they, as a group, have a fantastic opportunity to go further in the next few years. There’s more that they can achieve.’
And while the exodus of top players remains an issue, Stick feels that Pollard’s move to Montpellier will benefit the flyhalf and the team in the long run. The player spent the previous seven years at the Bulls.
‘It can only aid his growth. That may sound crazy, as Handre has been playing Test rugby since 2014, but players sometimes need to break out of their comfort zones.
‘It’s a win-win situation for us. Handre will see how they play in Europe and he will bring that information back to the Boks. It will challenge him to look at his own game in a new way, and perhaps add to it. There is no down side to a move like that.’
Pollard is reportedly one of the highest-paid players in Europe. The opportunity to compete abroad and explore the depths of his mettle and ability, however, will provide him with far more than financial gain.
‘This whole experience is exactly what I needed,’ he says. ‘The Top 14 competition is incredibly tough. The lifestyle is very different and the seven or eight South Africans at the club have been helping me with the language.
‘It’s not easy, but I’ve found it stimulating. I enjoy new challenges. I don’t want to find myself in a situation where I’m stagnating or becoming complacent. That’s not who I am.’
SPIRIT OF ADVENTURE
Prior to the lockdown in France, Handre Pollard and his wife took the opportunity to explore several European countries and embrace the local culture. He may not have enjoyed such a chance if he were still playing in South Africa.
‘I’m here to play rugby and that my focus is with Montpellier. That said, we do have an opportunity to hop on a train or plane and explore some incredible places that are just a couple of hours away,’ he says.
‘When you’re in South Africa, you feel like you’re a world apart. You wouldn’t get the chance to explore Lapland or drive to Switzerland or Barcelona on your day off, or possibly ever.’
France lifted its lockdown in mid-May and the Pollards took the chance to get out and enjoy the sunshine and fresh air in Montpellier.
‘It was pretty intense, being cooped up for 50-odd days. When the lockdown ended, my wife and I took a stroll down the road and there were a few people out and about. I even got a chance to play some golf again. It was good to see that spirits were so high.’
‘Ask Handre how he got his nickname,’ long-time teammate Lood de Jager insists. De Jager and Pollard made their Test debuts in the same season (2014) and featured in the same Bulls side between 2017 and 2019 before taking up contracts with overseas clubs.
Pollard laughs when De Jager’s question is relayed to him. ‘During a game for the Bulls, I caught a high ball in backfield and then set off towards the opposition forwards. I maintained my line without a hint of a sidestep, and was duly smashed. Unfortunately, RG Snyman and some of the other guys started calling me ‘Kamikaze’ after that.’