Handré Pollard has arrived and may be around for a while yet, writes RYAN VREDE.
Handré Pollard was the future. He has become the present, his skills, and physical and mental constitution combining to send him back from the future.
Yes, many people with a trained eye had predicted Pollard would be the player around whom the Springboks would be built post the 2015 World Cup. Few predicted he would become so good, so quickly.
Remember that two years ago he was, at this corresponding time, sitting for his matric finals. He’d crept into public consciousness as a schoolboy selected for the Junior Bok squad, with coach Dawie Theron and Springbok chief Heyneke Meyer agreeing that the kid was something special and better, at 18, than any other qualifying flyhalf in the country.
We thought we were watching a prodigiously gifted kid who had enough Henry Honiball about him to grab our attention and lead his team to the title. With the perspective gained over time we now understand that we were watching the birth of the flyhalf who has the potential to take the Springboks to the summit of the game’s rankings. And keep them there.
If you’ve watched enough rugby in a professional capacity and had your opinion informed by top coaches, you are well equipped to determine when a youngster who is thrust into senior rugby is special. I saw it when I watched Frans Steyn in torrential rain against Western Province in the 2006 Currie Cup league match in Durban. I saw it in Pat Lambie in a pre-season friendly where the Sharks took on the Stormers at Newlands in 2009. And it was there again when Pollard made his senior debut against the Sharks in the 2013 Currie Cup. Many had predicted a bright future for him after his showing at the Junior World Championship a year earlier, but his progression since has confirmed that he also has a heat-resistant temperament, which, if missing, makes for a beautiful letdown.
Furthermore, he is fiercely ambitious. I mean, fiercely. It comes across in his manner of speaking and he gives insight into that ambition when discussing his Super Rugby season with the Bulls.
‘I sat on the bench for 10 straight games or something like that. I hated every minute,’ he says. ‘Deep down I knew it was probably better that I was eased into Super Rugby slowly, but I wanted to go right away. When I’m older and wiser I’ll probably thank [Bulls coach] Frans Ludeke for that, but I have massive self-belief and I’d like to think my story would have been the same whether I started slowly or not.’
Still, even this ambition didn’t allow him to imagine his year would include not only his Springbok debut but his ascension to the throne of Springbok rugby, unseating Morné Steyn, a 50-plus Test veteran, in the process. The Bok flyhalf is indeed the king in this rugby monarchy, one subjected to the most intense media and public scrutiny, the one who carries with him the greatest burden of expectation and the ambitions of a fanatical rugby fraternity. But there’s a but …
The last 20-year-old pivot the Springboks selected dazzled in patches, was ravaged by injury, overwhelmed by the sudden expectation that stretched beyond that of Cheetahs fans and dashed off to Racing Métro, remedying his angst with a lucrative salary and life in suburban Paris. Johan Goosen was the present and future and is also the reason I’m loath to announce the coming of the second messiah in Pollard.
‘Deep down I knew it was probably better that I was eased into Super Rugby slowly, but I wanted to go right away'
But there’s something different about Pollard that elicits hope that threatens to spill over into certainty. In the hour I spent chatting to Goosen in the stands of the Free State Stadium in 2012, I was excited about what he would bring to the Springboks, but he never gave me the feeling Pollard does. Pollard is mature beyond his 20 years, measured and thoughtful in his answers to my questions, not dissimilar to Springbok veteran Jean de Villiers, who is unfailingly honest and forthright.
Pollard appears to treat success and failure as the twin impostors they are, acknowledging that he will court both in the years ahead but stressing that he hopes to be defined by neither.
‘I don’t even contemplate failure. But I know I’ll fail,’ he says. ‘It’s part of the growth process. There’s nothing to fear in failure.’
Physically, Pollard also dwarfs Goosen and is therefore wholly better equipped to be successful as the gainline assassin they’ve both styled themselves as. Notably, Meyer has no desire to curb Pollard’s natural instinct in this regard, instead tweaking a previously pragmatic game plan to suit his young general.
‘Heyneke has given me licence to play to my strength, which is taking the ball to the line and beating defenders or creating for others through distribution,’ Pollard explains. ‘Of course, the opposition and conditions dictate a big part of how you play or are allowed to play, so we’ve been working on improving my tactical versatility. I’d like to think you’ve seen some of that come through in the Rugby Championship and the end-of-year tour will test that some more.’
At the time of writing, Pollard was six Tests into his Springbok career and had moved past the phase of feeling like a fraud in elevated company.
‘That All Blacks Test in Wellington did it for me. After the match I realised that if I can play like that against the world champions, I have a chance of building an international career. My best Test performance-wise was against the All Blacks at Ellis Park, but I’ll always remember the Wellington game as being more significant because of what it did for my self-belief.’
Pollard claims he hasn’t allowed his mind to drift towards the World Cup in England – ‘I’m a here-and-now type of guy’ – but the discourse around this is well and truly under way. His European tour performances will give us more insight into the depth of his talent, and strong showings there will dispel any lingering doubts about him as the Springboks’ best 10 going into the tournament in England.
Not that there are very many doubts to dispel. The future, it seems, is now.
POLLARD ON …
HIS RELATIONSHIP WITH MORNÉ STEYN
‘Time didn’t allow us to work together too closely, but I’ve felt nothing but support from him. Look, it must be tough to see a kid come in and take your place but Morné has never been anything but encouraging and supportive. The most notable thing I’ve learned from him is how to switch off “the noise” and focus on getting the job done.’
THE HYPE AROUND HIM
‘I’m not a big social media person so I don’t have a sense of what the public’s perception is of me. I Instagram a little but that’s it. I also don’t read the press. I’ll read this article, though!’
‘I started out this year hoping to become a regular starter for the Bulls, and ended up starting for the Springboks. It’s been surreal. I still haven’t come to terms with all that’s happened. It will sink in over the December break.’
THE 2015 WORLD CUP
‘Anything can happen in a year, so I don’t want to get ahead of myself. I’ll get through the European tour and have a better idea of where I stand. Then I have to perform in Super Rugby next year to keep myself in contention. I can’t look beyond the next game at this point.’
– This article first appeared in the December 2014 issue of SA Rugby magazine