Handré Pollard gains a fresh perspective in Europe ahead of his next chapter
The Springbok flyhalf reflects on his journey back to full fitness, Montpellier’s impressive run, an upcoming move to Leicester Tigers and the Boks’ development plans
Handré Pollard laughs when it’s put to him that he has nothing left to prove.
A long list of accolades makes for a compelling argument. The Springbok flyhalf belongs to an elite club of players who have won the Rugby Championship, the World Cup and a series against the British & Irish Lions. A recent report listed Pollard as the world’s highest-paid rugby player – earning R20-million annually at French club Montpellier.
Pollard, however, is more concerned with the future than the past. As he explained to DM168, the Boks’ World Cup triumph in Japan marked the end of the beginning as far as his rugby career was concerned.
Pollard moved to Montpellier in late 2019 in order to play in a different rugby environment – having spent the previous eight years with the Bulls and Boks. Next season he will further his rugby education with Leicester Tigers, a team stacked with world-class coaches, players and facilities.
Finishing in France on a high
The Bok flyhalf is determined to leave Montpellier on a winning note, though. The French side has impressed in the Champions Cup and currently sit at the top of the Top 14 log.
It is possible Pollard, a serial winner on the international stage, may soon win his first major trophy at club level.
“When I arrived in 2019, Montpellier were not in a good place,” he says. “Changes were made and we won the Challenge Cup [the European competition below the Champions Cup] the following season. We carried that momentum through to this season and really stepped up in the Champions Cup.
“The Top 14 is probably the toughest competition I’ve experienced, in terms of the length of the tournament and the intensity of the matches,” Pollard adds. “The people over here are mad about the domestic competition.
“There’s been a lot of hype about the French national team over the past year, and deservedly so given the way they’ve played and what they’ve achieved in the Six Nations. But if you had to ask some of these French fans to choose between their club winning the Top 14 or their national side winning the World Cup, they’d probably choose the former.
“That Top 14 trophy means a great deal. Winning it would mean a great deal to me, especially after all Montpellier has been through.”
Making the most of his prime
Shortly after Covid-19 restrictions in France were lifted in September 2020, Pollard sustained a serious knee injury. While he recovered, before the Test series against the Lions in July 2021, it was clear over the course of the season that he was not at his best.
In January, he tore his calf in the gym.
“At 21, you don’t worry too much about these setbacks, because you don’t really know what they signify. After you’ve had a few long injury layoffs you appreciate that an injury means a loss of opportunity.
“You don’t want to miss games when you’re in your prime,” the 28-year-old adds. “These are the best years for a flyhalf, between the ages of 27 and 30. To be sidelined during this period is immensely frustrating.
“Ultimately you have to adopt a positive mindset. Another injury means another journey back to fitness, and that journey forces you to add another layer of mental toughness.”
Italy flyhalf Paolo Garbisi proved an outstanding alternative for Montpellier in Pollard’s injury-enforced absence. When Pollard returned to play, the club persisted with Garbisi at No 10 and deployed the South African at No 12.
“Paolo is a great guy with a lot of energy. You wouldn’t believe the guy is 21. He’s got such a strong head on his shoulders, and that’s evident with his decision-making.
“Personally, I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to play No 12, as it’s given me a new perspective.”
Ongoing rugby education
Pollard keeps returning to the theme of gathering knowledge and improving his skill set.
Next season he’ll be exposed to new systems at Leicester and the unique pace of the Premiership. Those challenges – as well as a reunion with former Bok fitness guru Aled Walters, who joined the Tigers as head of athletic performance in 2020 – will push him to new heights.
“I feel my style of play is better suited to the game in England. There’s more structure over there, whereas in France there is a big focus on individual brilliance. I’ve learned a great deal in France. I’m looking forward to working and learning from those Leicester players and coaches. The game evolves so quickly these days, and you’re under pressure to come up with new ideas. Speaking to different coaches and players helps. It challenges your way of thinking.
“I want to take my game to the next level. As I approach my 30s, I want to be in the best possible shape. I know that Aled Walters can help me get there.”
Boosting the Boks
Pollard’s quest for a higher level bodes well for the Boks. He believes the world champions are well placed to progress in the lead-up to the 2023 World Cup.
“It’s been four years since Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber came back and implemented all those changes which allowed us to win the 2019 World Cup. Consistency in results allowed us to grow and develop our game, and to achieve something special.
“Consistency is an underrated thing in Test rugby,” he says. “If you look at the successful teams at that level, and teams praised for innovation, you will notice they have executed all those amazing things on the back of a consistent run of results.” DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.