After overcoming an injury scare, Handre Pollard’s importance to the Springbok cause cannot be overestimated, writes JON CARDINELLI in the latest SA Rugby magazine.
Pollard was 15 years old when the British & Irish Lions toured South Africa in 2009. Obsessed with the Springboks as well as the mythology around the famous northern hemisphere team, he made his way to Newlands and watched with wonder as Western Province pushed the Lions close.
‘South Africa’s win in the 2007 World Cup made a big impression on me,’ Pollard tells SA Rugby magazine. ‘It was only after I watched that Lions tour in 2009, however, that I started to dream about pursuing a career in rugby and becoming a Springbok.’
Pollard starred for WP at the U13 Craven Week. By the time the Lions arrived in 2009, there was already talk in the media about a youngster who had all the makings of a future South African great.
The Bulls moved to secure Pollard’s signature – much to the dismay of the Newlands faithful – and gave the teenager the means to chase his goal.
Twelve years on, and Pollard has won big matches and major titles on the Test stage. Even so, he wants more – a series victory could bolster the team’s legacy.
Pollard and company beat the All Blacks in Wellington three years ago. In 2019, they won the Rugby Championship and the biggest prize in the game: the Webb Ellis Cup.
The Boks haven’t played together since they beat England 32-12 in the World Cup final on 2 November 2019. Despite South Africa’s lack of game time, the coaches and players believe another big prize is within their grasp.
‘When you grow up as a rugby-mad kid in South Africa, you know that winning a World Cup final is the ultimate,’ Pollard says. ‘You also want to beat the All Blacks in New Zealand, and you want to win a series against the Lions.
‘We’ve ticked two of those boxes so far. I’m hoping for a crack at ticking the third.’
There will be talk of destiny as the Test series against the Lions approaches; talk about a talented kid from Paarl Gimnasium who was subsequently developed at the Bulls and put on a path to international success.
A lot of that success, of course, is a result of the individual’s persistence and hard work.
Pollard talks at length about clearing physical hurdles and slaying mental demons throughout his career. He remembers the injuries that forced him to miss most of the 2016 and 2017 seasons.
Last September, he tore his anterior-cruciate ligament while on duty for French club Montpellier. As he left the field on a stretcher, everybody with a passing interest in the Lions tour to South Africa wondered if the incident was a watershed moment.
Would Pollard bounce back in time to face the Lions? The man himself pondered the same question during the rehabilitation process.
‘I went back to South Africa for the op, and spent the next three to four months doing rehab with the Springbok physiotherapist and conditioning coach. I touched base with Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber while I was there – not to talk about tactics for the Lions series, but to speak about my injury and my availability,’ says Pollard.
‘It can be touch and go when you get big injuries like this. There was a point where we thought I might not be ready. I’m glad that it’s all gone well, though, and I’ve managed to get back on to the field.
Pollard recalls his comeback game for Montpellier in early May. Despite his history with injuries, and despite his importance in the context of the Lions series, he threw his body into contact as if there were no tomorrow.
‘When you’ve been through these injuries and recovery periods, you know what to expect on your return,’ he adds. ‘You get back on to the field and make some good contributions, but also some mistakes. That’s OK. I’ve learned to savour those good and bad moments, because when you’re coming back, they’re all part of the same process.’
Pollard was backed to play – albeit from the bench – when Montpellier progressed to the European Challenge Cup playoffs. He was faced with another setback ahead of the final against Leicester.
‘After the semi-final, I found out that I had a small tear in my calf,’ he says. ‘You come to expect these small niggles. You can’t let it get you down. Fortunately, there were a couple of weeks between the semi and the final, and I was back in time for the decider.
‘It can be frustrating to be sidelined over and over, but I’ve learned that you have to keep the big picture in mind.’
As he explains, the Boks may benefit from his appearance – and his success – in yet another final. Montpellier outlasted Leicester to win 18-17 to lift the trophy.
‘I came back from injury at a time when Montpellier were sitting at the lower end of the Top 14 table,’ he says. ‘We advanced in the European Challenge Cup, and found ourselves in the final.
‘It was a high-intensity environment. Everything was on the line. I enjoy that kind of challenge. There was a noticeable lift in the final itself. In a way, that’s great preparation for what I might experience across the Lions series.’
Some believe that the Boks will go into the series undercooked and overhyped, despite their status as world champions and World Rugby’s No 1-ranked team.
‘People have had a lot to say about us,’ Pollard observes with a chuckle. ‘That’s fine. Maybe, when you look at the fact that we haven’t played in over a year, those critics have a point. That said, nothing’s changed in terms of what we believe and what we know we can do. Our objective is clear. This kind of criticism doesn’t faze us.’
What about the criticism of the team’s pragmatic style of play? The Boks were slammed for their physical, kick-chase approach at the 2019 World Cup – even though the approach paid dividends in the shape of a world title.
‘People always seem to have an opinion about South Africa’s gameplan. Part of our success at the World Cup was down to the fact that we trusted in the process and believed that our plan would work for us. It’s not about what other people think. It’s about a group of us buying into a plan, and then backing it wholeheartedly. You can call it ugly if you want, but if it produces the result, who cares?
‘A series against the Lions is a rare opportunity,’ he reiterates, perhaps remembering what inspired him to chase a career in rugby.
‘The Boks haven’t played in over a year, but we’re coming back together now and looking at what we need to do to make this chance count.
‘The pressure of those Test matches will be intense, for sure. But that’s what we live for. We will cherish every moment that we have.’