The manner in which Handré Pollard has marshalled proceedings in the Bulls’ recent wins over the Stormers and Sharks is a positive sign for the Boks, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
When it comes to South African rugby, heightened emotion is never far away.
It’s been seen in videos of Bok supporters burning their green and gold jerseys after historic defeats, and it’s evidenced in the online anger that is often directed mercilessly at players and teams when things don’t go well.
This is the nature of an unforgiving landscape in rugby-mad South Africa, and it’s why the Springbok coaching job has literally been written about as the ‘poisoned chalice’.
Almost inevitably, one of the topics that always stirs fierce debate revolves around the flyhalf position and the options available to the Boks. This was again reflected in a video on SARugbymag.co.za last week, which focused on this subject and ignited plenty of reaction.
What’s strange to note is how some people have been so quick to write off Pollard at the ripe ‘old’ age of 24. It generally seems to hark back to the two-year period following the 2015 World Cup when the youngster endured a number of injury setbacks.
Such a course of events is often enough for so-called supporters to irrationally label a player as brittle, rather than truly appreciating the context of the injuries. As it is, both of Pollard’s most serious injuries (knee and ankle) came in ‘freak’ training ground accidents. Not to mention the severe infection that briefly posed the threat of amputation following shoulder surgery – and which required weeks of antibiotic treatment in hospital.
It’s these sort of career-threatening challenges that generally aren’t taken into account when a player fights his way back to fitness, but then fails to perform at his peak the moment he steps back on to the field. There certainly appeared to be very little sympathy for Pollard when he failed to find his best form early on in Super Rugby last year before injury struck again.
Pollard has generally taken it on the chin, and when I chatted to him ahead of this season in an interview for SA Rugby magazine, there was one comment that particularly provided insight into the personal and professional progression he has made over the past couple of years.
‘You can get caught up in a rugby bubble sometimes and it may seem like nothing else matters, but it’s also important to realise that there is more to life,’ he reflected.
‘It’s something I grew to understand in 2016 with all the setbacks. To have friends, family and loved ones to share experiences with is just as important as rugby, so I’d definitely say the off-field challenges have helped put my life and career into perspective. I’ve learned a lot about myself over the past couple of years and I’d like to believe that I’ve come out the other side as a stronger person.’
When speaking to new Bulls coach John Mitchell, he also acknowledged that Pollard appeared to be in a great space and that they would be working closely with him on aspects of his play, such as game management.
In recent weeks, there have been signs of just that. The pivot controlled proceedings superbly in the Bulls’ 33-23 win over the Stormers at the end of March, while he was the orchestrator in a dominant 40-10 victory against the Sharks last Saturday.
What stood out was his ability to use the kick as an attacking weapon, while his excellent decision-making spoke volumes about his renewed confidence.
That ability to spot and expose space behind the defence through the use of the boot, while formulating the correct balance between running and kicking, remains a chief characteristic of a Test-quality flyhalf.
It’s what Elton Jantjies showcased with expert precision in the Lions’ impressive win over the Stormers, and remains one of the primary reasons why the experienced flyhalf looks equally deserving of retaining his place in the Bok set-up.
The battle for that Bok flyhalf berth is very quickly heating up, but the manner in which Pollard has begun to rediscover some of his best form serves as a stark reminder that he will not easily relinquish the No 10 jersey he wore for the final three Tests of 2017.
Photo: Kevin James