It’s true that Handre Pollard is South Africa’s best Test flyhalf and touted by some as the best in the business, but this doesn’t negate the fact that his goal-kicking form is a serious problem for the world champions, writes ZELIM NEL.
The Springboks stumbled to a 28-26 loss against the Wallabies in Gold Coast this past Sunday, extending their slump in Australia to six successive Tests without a win.
The world champions went into the match as heavy favourites based on Australia’s 12-month record that included two draws with Argentina, a narrow home-series victory over a depleted France and three straight losses against the All Blacks.
In contrast, South Africa followed up winning the 2019 Rugby World Cup by beating the British & Irish Lions and then thundering over Argentina.
In the aftermath of Sunday’s shock result, Jacques Nienaber heaped blame on team discipline. While it’s true that Bok skipper Siya Kolisi and fullback Willie le Roux were yellow-carded, the Wallabies also kept the naughty chair warm for 20 minutes – conceding 61% of the penalties on the day.
Though he’s not solely to blame for the result, Pollard’s woeful goal-kicking was a major contributor. In fact, his failure to match Quade Cooper on the scoreboard was easily the most decisive duel in the contest.
Where the 33-year-old marked his return to Test rugby from a four-year exile with seven penalties and a conversion for 23 points, Pollard missed three of seven shots at goal for a sub-standard 57% strike rate.
Talk of it being ‘a bad day at the office’ for the 53-Test veteran fails to look further back than his flawless seven-from-seven effort against Argentina in round two of the Rugby Championship.
Pollard missed six of 19 shots at goal against the British & Irish Lions for a 68% strike rate and, with the series on the line, the Boks turned to Morne Steyn in the decisive third Test for the match-winner.
Elton Jantjies started the next match, converting six of seven goal-kicks in a comprehensive 32-12 win over the Pumas in Gqeberha.
But Steyn is 37 and Jantjies, though he’s recently been playing some of his best rugby, lacks the physical presence to command the No 10 jersey in a team built to defend first.
Among the world’s most physical flyhalves, the prodigiously talented Damian Willemse appears to be stuck on the conveyor belt that has so often carried gifted all-rounders to the scrap heap.
Instead of being groomed as the heir to Pollard’s throne, Willemse is trapped in a destructive game of musical chairs during which the electric 23-year-old was plugged in at fullback, centre and flyhalf over the past three seasons.
And that’s the point – Pollard’s place in the Bok set-up is cushy. A veteran in the team room and a leader in support of Kolisi, Pollard has won a World Cup and tamed the Lions, and is reportedly on one of rugby’s richest contracts. It’s human nature to feel pretty comfortable and skip a few extras in that situation, especially when there are no threats on your radar.
But Pollard’s resting heart rate would go up if Johan Goosen joined the squad tomorrow. The journeyman flyhalf single-handedly gave the Currie Cup credibility when Jake White landed Goosen at Loftus Versfeld.
After years of controversy in France and his ill-fated call-up to play fullback for the Boks in 2016, the 29-year-old Goosen is back in South Africa and his red-hot form helped the Bulls rumble to a successful title defence.
Aside from his incisive running skills, deft handling and elite game sense, Goosen is a quality goal-kicker, slotting 37 of 43 attempts during the 2021 domestic championship for an 86% strike rate.
Goosen will be 31 when the 2023 Rugby World Cup kicks off in France, a rugby landscape he knows very well after making 51 appearances for Racing and 17 for Montpellier.
Adding Goosen to the Bok squad will light a fire under Pollard and put everyone else on notice that staying at the top requires a higher standard of performance than is required to get there.