Pollard must build on super start

A commanding showing in the second half of the Vodacom Super Rugby tournament should see Handré Pollard installed as the Springboks’ No 1 flyhalf, writes JON CARDINELLI.

Who is the best No 10 in South Africa at present? Is it Pollard? Is it Pat Lambie? Who should Heyneke Meyer back as the Boks’ chief decision-maker at the World Cup this September?

Only one of these frontrunners competed in the derby between the Sharks and the Bulls at Kings Park. Pollard produced an impressive all-round display to guide the Bulls to an important 17-10 win. Meanwhile, Lambie watched the clash from the stands.

The Sharks pivot was injured in the match against the Crusaders two weeks ago. When the camera panned to Lambie in the crowd this past Saturday, it showed the player wearing a neck brace as well as a glum expression.

To watch the Sharks lose yet another game must have been tough. To watch Pollard, his competition for the Bok No 10 jersey, play with such poise and authority must have been even tougher.

Form does play a big part in World Cup selection, especially with regards to flyhalves. Jake White backed Butch James at the 2007 tournament, despite favouring Jaco van der Westhuyzen and André Pretorius in previous seasons. Peter de Villiers explored several flyhalf options before settling on Morné Steyn at the last minute. Steyn convinced De Villiers of his value when he kicked the Boks to victory in a Test against the All Blacks in Port Elizabeth.

When the World Cup squad is unveiled in August, there will be three, and possibly even four, flyhalf options in the 31-man group. Pollard and Lambie will be the main contenders for the starting position, and Steyn, a proven force in northern hemisphere conditions, should be in the mix. Meyer may also include Johan Goosen, who can cover at both 10 and 15.

But even now, some five months out from the all-important tournament, there is some uncertainty regarding that starting position. Indeed, when Meyer spoke about his flyhalf options at an end-of-season wash-up in Cardiff last November, it was clear that he had made no final decision.

Pollard impressed in his first season of senior rugby, delivering some statement-making performances in the two games against the All Blacks and especially against the Wallabies in Cape Town. And yet, Meyer felt that the 20-year-old’s game management and tactical kicking still required work. Interestingly, this was the same criticism levelled at Lambie following the Boks’ tour of Europe in late 2012.

Pollard struggled against Ireland last November, and Lambie was subsequently backed to start in the next three matches. While Lambie produced a controlled showing against England, he was less convincing against Italy and Wales. Lambie's lacklustre performance in Cardiff reopened the flyhalf debate.

Meyer stated that the 2015 Super Rugby tournament would be significant in terms of World Cup selection. He said that he wanted to see what Pollard could do when he was backed to start consistently at the Bulls.

To date, Pollard has started seven of the Bulls’ nine games. He tops the tournament stats for points scored (120), but more impressive than the numbers has been his influence with ball in hand as well as his composure in front of goal.

For example, this past Saturday witnessed two early misses as well as a failed drop-goal attempt. The youngster recovered to sink a penalty goal when it mattered most in the second half. That penalty extended the Bulls’ lead to seven, a significant margin in a tight contest.

The improvement of his game management and tactical kicking was also evident in this match. Pollard kicked accurately and intelligently to put the Sharks under all sorts of pressure.

Pollard has a great opportunity to strengthen his claim for the Bok No 10 jersey in the next two months. He needs to build on his recent performance against the Sharks when he travels to Cape Town this coming Saturday. And when the Bulls head Down Under, Pollard will have the chance to steer the side to a successful tour record and ultimately the South African conference title.

Ideally, Meyer would want both Pollard and Lambie firing by the end of the Super Rugby tournament. The World Cup will be won by a squad of 23 rather than a team of 15. As we saw when South Africa beat New Zealand at Ellis Park last year, Pollard and Lambie can co-exist in a match-day squad and both are capable of match-winning contributions.

That said, the starting position is the most coveted by the players, and both Pollard and Lambie have made it clear that they want that responsibility. If Pollard continues to make the most of his opportunities at the Bulls, then Meyer’s decision may be that much easier come the Rugby Championship and World Cup.

Photo: Steve Haag/Gallo Images

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Jon Cardinelli