Springbok flyhalf Handré Pollard tests the psyche of defenders, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Handré Pollard reveals that he isn’t one for visualisation. He isn’t thinking about starting in the World Cup final at Twickenham this October. He hasn’t imagined a scene in which he lines up a shot at goal to win the Webb Ellis Cup for the Springboks.
Pollard says he’s a man of action, a player who prefers to live in the moment. It’s in the heat of battle where he’s at his most inspired. It’s on the field of play where he allows himself to dream. It’s an attitude that has transformed the Boks into a versatile and ultimately more dangerous beast over the past two seasons.
The observation has been made by many of the Boks’ opponents, including the world’s No 1 Test team. In 2014, All Blacks coach Steve Hansen stated that the introduction of Pollard had lent the Boks new impetus on attack, and thus forced New Zealand to revise their own defence strategies. More recently, in the buildup to the Rugby Championship Test at Ellis Park, Hansen described Pollard as a special player who will take South Africa forward in the years to come.
‘It’s nice when a guy like that gives you a compliment,’ Pollard tells SA Rugby magazine. ‘I’m not fazed by other people’s opinions of me. But maybe I will allow myself to take a little something from that.’
Pollard scored two tries in the Boks’ 27-25 win over the All Blacks in Johannesburg last year. While the Boks lost all three Tests in the 2015 Rugby Championship, the rousing attacking performances against Australia and New Zealand were some consolation. That tournament also witnessed the emergence of Pollard, Damian de Allende and Jesse Kriel as a 10-12-13 combination. It’s a combination that should trouble even the best defences at this year’s World Cup.
Pollard shakes his head when asked if he’s found his second season at Test level easier than the first.
‘The pressure from the defence is still right up there. What helps is I do have more experience. Obviously I still have a lot to learn, but I feel I’m on the right track. I’m in a good space.
‘We played some good rugby against Australia and New Zealand in the Rugby Championship, even though we didn’t get the results we wanted. We’ve done very well for a young backline, those two centres especially; I believe they will go on to become great players. The more we play together as a combination, the better we will become.
‘Maybe a lack of experience cost us at the business end of those matches,’ he adds, pointing out that the combination is still a work in progress. ‘We lacked a killer instinct. We had a 10-point lead at one stage against Australia, but we still lost. We had New Zealand on the rack, but we allowed them to come back. So there are things to improve on, and to learn from. That said, if you look at the bigger picture, I would say it’s a very exciting time for me, and for this team.’
Pollard concedes there are other areas of his game that require work. He struggled in a rain-affected match against Argentina at Loftus Versfeld last year, and in another weather-afflicted Test against Ireland in Dublin. Heyneke Meyer has said the youngster needs to sharpen his tactical kicking skills if he wants to start the big games at this year’s World Cup.
‘In Super Rugby, the level of intensity and the conditions are more or less the same from game to game,’ Pollard explains. ‘International rugby is a big step up, and then you have the massive difference between the way the game is played in the northern and southern hemispheres. I feel I played well in my three Tests against the All Blacks. However, in that game against Ireland, inexperience cost us. We didn’t cope well with the rush defence. I’m looking forward to another opportunity in the northern hemisphere.
‘My tactical kicking has improved since last year,’ he continues. ‘Look, it’s not the type of thing that’s going to change overnight. It takes a long time to hone that part of your game. It’s taken me some time to understand the kicking game plan, and when to play for territory.’
Can Pollard make the necessary adjustments to become an all-round threat at the 2015 World Cup? If the improvements made to his goal-kicking game over the past few months are any indicator, Meyer and the Boks should feel optimistic.
Earlier this year, Pollard missed four of his seven attempts at goal in the match against the World XV in Cape Town. In the aftermath, Meyer criticised him for a wayward kicking display. It forced the flyhalf to address that area of his game. The hard work paid off, as he went on to convert 12 of his 14 attempts on goal in the Rugby Championship, a success rate of 85%.
That improvement will challenge the arguments for Pat Lambie or Steyn as starting options. And, as Hansen has asserted consistently, no other flyhalf in the South African stable invades the psyche of opposition defenders.
The return of Fourie du Preez, South Africa’s decorated scrumhalf, should also amplify his potency.
‘Senior players like Fourie and Morné often speak to me about the structure side of the game,’ Pollard says. ‘They’re constantly reminding me that the flyhalf has to take control in that respect, to steer the ship. At the same time, they encourage me to bring that little bit extra to the team. That special play.’
Indeed, that little bit extra could make all the difference when the Boks tackle the better teams in the World Cup play-offs this October.
– This article first appeared in the October 2015 issue of SA Rugby magazine