Handré Pollard has gained valuable experience since the 2015 World Cup and become a more balanced player, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Handré Pollard laughs when he’s asked to reflect on his experience at the 2015 World Cup.
‘What a young, stupid little boy I was,’ he tells SA Rugby magazine. ‘Don’t get me wrong. I know I’m still a young guy. I don’t pretend to know everything there is to know about the game. However, when I think back to how much I learned at that World Cup and about how much I have learned on and off the field since 2015, I realise how far I’ve come as a player and a person.’
Back then, Pollard had the weight of a nation on his 21-year-old shoulders. He’d been backed by Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer to start regularly in the 2014 and 2015 Rugby Championships. He’d been talked up by fans, teammates and opposition coaches – All Blacks mentor Steve Hansen chief among those – as the next big thing for South African rugby.
Some started to speak about Pollard in the same breath as Dan Carter, even though the former was only three years out of school and the latter was spearheading the world champions in his fourth World Cup campaign. Most youngsters would have been crushed by the expectation. Pollard took it all his stride and was one of the few South Africans to finish the competition with his reputation enhanced.
Fast forward to the present. Pollard has fought back after serious knee and ankle injuries to re-establish himself as the Boks’ first-choice playmaker. More recently, he’s assumed the Bulls captaincy in the injury-enforced absence of Lood de Jager.
He’s shown a new maturity and awareness that’s made all the difference to the team’s performances and results. As at the beginning of April, the Bulls were ranked second in the South African conference and Pollard was the tournament’s top point-scorer.
Fitness permitting, Pollard will travel to the World Cup as the Boks’ starting flyhalf. This time, as one of the senior players in the side, he will have a different role to play.
‘The pressure didn’t bother him at the 2015 World Cup,’ former Bok captain Jean de Villiers remembers. ‘Sometimes youth can be an asset. You don’t overthink what you need to do. He relied a lot on [scrumhalf] Fourie du Preez for guidance and I was next to him at No 12 in the early stages of the tournament. Later this year, however, the roles will be reversed, with Handré playing next to a less experienced No 9 and calling most of the shots.
‘That experience of playing in 2015 will help him. He will know what to expect, and he will know what it takes to mentor the younger guys in the backline and how to get the best out of them. He’s doing that now in his role as a senior player at the Bulls.’
Pollard played 997 out of a possible 1 200 minutes for the Boks and Barbarians in 2018, as well as 1 157 out of a possible 1 280 minutes for the Bulls in the preceding Super Rugby tournament. One could argue that one of South Africa’s most valuable assets should be managed carefully a year out from the World Cup. Pollard, however, believes the extended run allowed him to regain what he lost during that 18-month layoff across the 2016 and 2017 seasons.
‘Staying on the field has been a big thing for me,’ he says when asked to comment on where and how he has improved. ‘I know it’s not the answer some people are hoping for, but I had a tough time in 2016 and 2017. I needed to string some games together and get my confidence back. It’s been hard work and I know there’s still a lot I need to do. Getting a consistent run is crucial to realising my goals.
‘This year, I haven’t changed much, not in my attacking approach or in my goal-kicking technique. I’ve just focused on improving a little each week.’
Perhaps Pollard is being modest. Perhaps he doesn’t realise what he has gained after a consistent run at the highest level and how much more he will offer the Boks at the World Cup later this year.
‘There was a time last year when he was battling for consistency,’ notes De Villiers. ‘The Test against Argentina in Durban, where he missed six goal kicks, stands out. Since then, however, he has gone from strength to strength. We saw how good he was in the later matches against Australia and New Zealand. This year, he’s taken another step up.
‘We’ve always known Handré as a player with the intent and ability to take the ball to the line. When he came through at the Boks in 2014, he was a bundle of energy. That’s the thing with the young guys, they can invigorate an attack. We’re seeing that with Damian Willemse [the Stormers’ 20-year-old flyhalf] now. Damian just wants the ball in his hands. He wants to make the big play and score for his team.
‘What Handré has learned to do is play the situation,’ De Villiers says of Pollard’s growth. ‘Sometimes you need to sit back in the pocket and look for territory via the kicking game. That understanding of what is needed has come with experience.
‘I was mightily impressed with what I saw from him during the early stages of the Super Rugby tournament. The Bulls got a lot right, but Handré’s decision-making was absolutely vital to their relative success. The game management in general play was good and the decision to keep the scoreboard ticking over heaped the pressure on the opposition. His form with the boot – and the value of that to a team – should not be underestimated.’
Meyer was involved with the move to bring Pollard – a product of Paarl Gimnasium in the Cape – to the Bulls. A few months after Pollard made his debut for the Pretoria-based franchise in 2014, Meyer backed the rookie to start a Test against the All Blacks in New Zealand.
‘I never would have picked him to start if I didn’t believe he could win the World Cup for us,’ Meyer says. ‘He impressed me at that competition in 2015. While he didn’t start in that game against Japan, he was involved in picking the guys up after the loss. He’s always been a leader in that sense. This time, he will go to the World Cup with more experience. I’m expecting him to have a big tournament. The Boks stand a good chance of winning it with Handré at 10.
‘At 25, he’s still one of the youngest in the Bok leadership group and in the Bulls team. Some coaches will look to ease the pressure on a young flyhalf – who in this case, also kicks the goals – by giving someone else the captaincy. I’m pleased he got the opportunity to lead the side in Lood’s absence, though. He’s always backed himself and he likes to take charge.’
Like De Villiers, Meyer has noticed a change in Pollard. He feels that a more balanced version of the flyhalf will be on show in Japan later this year.
‘Carter had absolutely everything in terms of running, kicking and defence. Handré is in that same category,’ Meyer says. ‘He is the best defensive No 10 in world rugby at the moment. That’s what you need when you’re playing a team like the All Blacks. But again, I need to stress what he can bring to such a contest in other departments. His speed and decision-making, not to mention his kicking, have consistently worried the All Blacks in recent years.
‘He’s slimmed down a bit since coming back from injury in 2017. He’s always been a guy who runs hard at the line. What’s changed this year is his tactical awareness. He’s looking to put teammates away. There’s a lot more balance to his game in the sense that defenders aren’t quite sure whether he’s going to run or pass.
‘There are a lot of boxes one needs to tick to become a championship-winning flyhalf,’ Meyer continues. ‘Probably the most important quality I can name – having coached some of the South Africa’s top No 10s – is that ability to stay cool under pressure.
‘I’d make a terrible flyhalf, because I’m too emotional. These guys are relaxed regardless of the environment. It’s why they’re able to make the big plays at the crucial moment. They’re capable of bouncing back from a bad performance or mistake to win a big game. These are the mental qualities I’ve noticed when working with Morné Steyn, Pat Lambie and Handré himself.’
At the beginning of his tenure as Bok coach in 2018, Rassie Erasmus made the point that no flyhalf has won the World Cup before the age of 24. Erasmus inferred that experience is needed in that position at a tournament of this magnitude, and that the Boks will need to travel to Japan with at least two seasoned options in Pollard and Elton Jantjies.
Jonny Wilkinson made his Test debut for England at the age of 19, and went on to feature at the 1999 World Cup. Four years later, Wilkinson steered England to their first world title.
Carter was blooded by the All Blacks in the lead-up to the 2003 World Cup. Twelve years later, he guided New Zealand to glory in the final against the Wallabies at Twickenham.
‘History tells us that these players became more influential as they grew older and more experienced,’ says Meyer. ‘When they hit 24 or 25 – Pollard’s age now – they started to realise their true potential.
‘We may see him stretching his wings now that he’s got a few years of Test rugby behind him. He’s always had the ability to lead as well as a sharp tactical brain. He’s worked on his kicking, and that repetition, repetition, repetition has allowed him to take the next step. Even with the injury setback, Handré has made progress and has become the complete package.’
*This article first appeared in the May issue of SA Rugby magazine