Pollard’s final test

Handré Pollard must adapt his game to suit European conditions and ultimately prove that he is the man for next year’s World Cup, writes JON CARDINELLI.

Pollard’s talent is worth celebrating. He’s brought more impetus to the Springbok attack in five months than Morné Steyn has in five years. His willingness to take the ball to the gainline, as well as his brilliant option taking with ball in hand, has transformed the South African back division into one of the most dangerous units in world rugby.

This much was evident in the two recent clashes against the All Blacks. Indeed, New Zealand coaches Steve Hansen and Ian Foster have conceded that Pollard’s presence makes for a less predictable Bok attack. That is some compliment from the mentors of a team that boasts the best defensive record in Test rugby.

And yet, there needs to be some perspective when assessing Pollard’s performance over the past five months. He’s made some big attacking statements in the Tests against Australia and New Zealand, but there are aspects of his game that require sharpening.

That Pollard is a player for the future is not up for debate. But is he the player for right now, and for the all-important 2015 World Cup? That question needs answering.

It was a big call to back the 20-year-old flyhalf to start in the Rugby Championship, first against Argentina in Pretoria and Salta, and then against the All Blacks in Wellington. Pollard vindicated Heyneke Meyer’s faith in him by producing some sparkling attacking displays. He showed terrific temperament and guts, at least on attack, and this is why he has travelled to Europe as the incumbent No 10.

The examination of his skills and temperament, however, is far from over. It’s easy to forget that Pollard is just 20. He made his Super Rugby debut in February, and started in just three matches over the course of that tournament. He’s played seven Tests to date, and this tour to Europe will be his first with the Boks.

Again, while he has given South African coaches and supporters good reason to feel enthusiastic about the future of Bok rugby, the fact remains that Pollard is a rookie at present and still has much to prove.

Pollard played a telling role on attack in the big win against the All Blacks at Ellis Park. While he will continue to offer the Boks a range of attacking options on the four-Test tour of Europe, his less-celebrated talents will be under scrutiny.

It’s on the soft fields and in the inclement weather where Pollard will need to make another series of statements. Pollard has to show Meyer that he can be an asset to the Boks in these conditions, as next year’s World Cup will be staged in this part of the world.

That Pollard has the tools to be an all-round success is patent. In the buildup to the Rugby Championship, Meyer predicted that Pollard would become one of the great No 10s. The Bok coach spoke glowingly of the player’s attacking attributes, but tempered that remark by stating  Pollard’s kicking game boasts more power than accuracy at present.

The inference was that it was only a matter of time before Pollard learned to harness all of his gifts to become the complete package at No 10. How much time will pass until that potential is realised? That is a point of debate. Of course, Meyer and the Boks will be hoping that Pollard progresses over the next four weeks, and ultimately confirms that he can do the business at next year’s World Cup in England.

Steyn has travelled to Europe with the Boks, and it appears as if he is Meyer’s fallback option. Steyn’s goal-kicking record speaks for itself, and some may have already forgotten about his match-winning display in Salta this past August. Over the course of his international career, he has also proved himself to be one of the finest tactical kickers in the game, and especially effective in northern hemisphere conditions.

Meyer knows what he has in Steyn, and this could lead to the veteran receiving few opportunities against Ireland, England, and Italy (the Stade Français pivot is not available for the Test against Wales).

Pat Lambie will receive game time over the next four weeks, either at flyhalf or fullback. Like Pollard, Lambie will need to show Meyer that his line kicking and decision-making is up to Test standard.

Lambie’s game management was criticised by Meyer after the Boks’ 2012 tour to Europe, and he is yet to show that he can play the role of backline general with any great authority. This tour may represent his last chance to do so.

Meyer wants four wins this November, but there is more to be gained than results in the context of next year’s World Cup. Pollard, Lambie and even Meyer’s new utility back Johan Goosen all need to show that they can add value in these conditions.

Photo: Barry Adlworth/BackpagePix

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Jon Cardinelli