Handre Pollard is thrilled to be on duty in the Champions Cup playoffs, partly because the high stakes will prime the Springbok flyhalf for the pressures of the pending international season.
“It will be nice to be involved in bigger games for the last couple of months of the season, it’s always great preparation for when you go into Test matches,” Pollard said of Montpellier’s looming quarter-final away to La Rochelle.
After featuring in South Africa’s November tour to Europe, Pollard’s next appearance for the world champions is set to come during July’s three-match series at home against Wales.
“South Africa’s coaching staff demand unbelievable standards, as they should if you want to stay number one in the world, because that’s what we’re trying to do, that’s what we’re working at.”
Montpellier are number one in the Top 14 and the next challenge in their bid to become European champions goes through La Rochelle. Montpellier have qualified for Europe’s top eight for just the second time in their history and they head to last season’s losing finalists who have the likes of powerful Fiji centre Levani Botia and giant Australia lock Will Skelton in their squad.
The match will also serve as a reunion for Pollard with his captain from when South Africa won the Junior World Championship in 2012, flanker Wiaan Liebenberg.
Liebenberg spent almost three seasons with Montpellier before joining La Rochelle in 2018, and he will retire at the end of the season.
“He’s got such a great history with Montpellier as well,” Pollard said. “It’s always a difficult one for him going back to playing against Montpellier and it’s also his final season before retirement so he’ll be out there to stay in the competition as long as possible and enjoy every moment of it.”
Pollard expects the quarter-final to be like “a chess game”.
“It’s like any playoff game, it’s about which team plays the smartest, plays the chess game the right way,” said Pollard. “We have to stand up physically, if we don’t do that we don’t stand a chance.”
#HeinekenChampionsCup – @mark_keohane and @Zels77 and both backing @staderochelais to knock Handre Pollard and @MHR_officiel out of the @ChampionsCup this weekend. @Betway_za pic.twitter.com/yp3TgEZq9T
— SA Rugby magazine (@SARugbymag) May 5, 2022
Top 14 league leaders Montpellier will be without 125kg lock Paul Willemse after the France loose forward was sidelined for two months with a knee injury suffered last weekend.
“It’s a big blow. Paulie, we all know he’s a brilliant player, he has a huge physical presence,” Pollard said. “As a leader he’s grown a lot since he started playing international rugby. He’s going to be missed.”
Pollard will leave the Mediterranean coast at the end of the season to join English side Leicester Tigers and reunite with South Africa’s former head of athletic performance Aled Walter.
“It’s a big change weather-wise,” Pollard joked. “Aled Walters is the conditioning coach and was with the Springboks at the World Cup.
“I love what he does, how he structures his week, and getting his players in the best possible shape. It was a big part of it.”
Champions Cup quarter-finals
Saturday (SA times)
Munster v Toulouse, 4pm (Aviva Stadium, Dublin)
Leicester Tigers v Leinster, 6.30pm (Welford Road, Leicester)
La Rochelle v Montpellier, 6.30pm (Stade Marcel de Flandre, La Rochelle)
Racing 92 v Sale Sharks, 4pm (Paris La Defense Arena, Paris)
© Agence France-Presse