BOKS IN FRANCE
Pollard’s return to form bodes well for Boks for 2023 Rugby World Cup
South African fans will be interested in the star flyhalf’s personal resurgence, and what it could mean for the national team.
The Springboks are spoilt for choice in key positions. As the 2023 Rugby World Cup approaches, they boast at least five experienced flyhalf options – and the situation has forced each contender, including the decorated Handré Pollard, to move up a gear while representing their teams on the club stage.
Pollard grabbed the headlines when he scored 19 points in Leicester Tigers’ 46-24 win over Bristol Bears in the most recent round of the Premiership.
The Bok flyhalf has racked up 61 points since joining the Tigers at the start of the English season, and his goal-kicking and game management have been key to the club’s mini-resurgence over the past few months.
Despite a poor start to the campaign – and the loss of coach Steve Borthwick to the England national side – the Tigers have won five games in a row since January, and are in third place on the Premiership table.
Pollard finds his teeth
South African fans will be more interested in Pollard’s personal resurgence, and what it could mean for the Boks.
Though he appeared limited and restricted during his tenure at Montpellier between 2020 and 2022 – a stint that was marred by injuries as well as the pandemic – his recent performances mirror those of the fearless player who dazzled for the Bulls in the early days of his career.
Pollard’s return to form was best highlighted in the recent clash against Bristol. After taking the ball flat, he dropped it on to the boot, slipped past the rapidly advancing defensive line, and regathered the ball to score. He remains a force in front of goal, too, and recently kicked a late penalty to give the Tigers a 25-22 win over London Irish.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Handré Pollard gains a fresh perspective in Europe ahead of his next chapter
“I’m getting there,” Pollard told the Leicester Tigers website.
“It has been a tough four years, very stop-start with injuries and France and everything, but it just feels nice to play consistently again, get the rhythm and to play at this place, with this team. I’m enjoying it so much. I haven’t enjoyed playing rugby like this in a very long time. It’s really fun.”
Richard Wigglesworth, who has taken the Leicester coaching reins since Borthwick’s departure, has hailed Pollard’s impact at the club: “He is everything you would expect from a world-class flyhalf. He has got an intensity to him that, when he speaks, you listen. He was really good [against Bristol]; he has been good for weeks.”
Though Pollard has enjoyed some success with the Boks over the past few years, it would be a stretch to say that he has been at his best on the Test stage in this period.
Pollard tore knee ligaments while on duty for Montpellier in September 2020. He won a race for fitness ahead of the monumental series against the Lions, but he wasn’t the same player across the 2021 Test season.
When he returned to France, he tore his calf muscle in the gym. Again, he fought back, and ended a disappointing stint at Montpellier on a high when he came off the bench to help the club to clinch the Top 14 title.
Pollard’s Test form fluctuated, as did the team’s, over the next few months. He was sidelined after the defeat to the Wallabies in Adelaide, and initial reports suggested that he would miss the rest of the season.
In October, his debut for Leicester lasted 27 minutes before he was helped from the field with yet another knee injury, which cost him a place in the squad for the Boks’ four-Test tour of Europe.
Nearly three months later, he made a successful return to play in the Tigers’ loss to Sale Sharks. He put the disappointment of 2022 behind him and managed to steer his new club to a series of important wins, first in the Champions Cup and then in the Premiership.
Pollard will face greater challenges if Leicester progress to the latter stages of these tournaments. From June, he will rejoin the Boks and have the chance to find some form in the green-and-gold jersey before the squad departs for the World Cup in August.
The Boks will play six games before heading to France – a three-round Rugby Championship, followed by friendlies against Argentina, Wales and New Zealand.
Juggling Pollard, Libbok, Willemse
Bok coaches Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber will want to give Pollard an opportunity to regain his international form. At the same time, they will be mindful of giving the second- and third-choice players enough chances ahead of the World Cup.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Boks’ proficient veterans must hit lower and faster to retain World Cup
The Boks enjoyed some good fortune at the 2019 tournament when Pollard remained fit and a second specialist wasn’t needed across the playoffs. But, as the 2022 season showed, they shouldn’t push their luck. They have to take their contingency plan to the next level in the coming months.
Damian Willemse will travel to the World Cup later this year as a utility player who can slot in at flyhalf, fullback and inside centre when required. Although the Stormers star played most of the 2021/22 United Rugby Championship campaign at No 12, he started the Test season at 15.
When Pollard broke down in August, Willemse filled the void at 10 and enhanced the team’s attack and defence over six of the next seven Tests – although his kicking from hand and for goal left a lot to be desired.
Elton Jantjies’s off-field issues precluded him from selection in the latter stages of the Test season. The Bok coaches insist that the 32-year-old has added value in training and planning sessions.
Since being dropped from his Japanese club, he has played a handful of games for Agen in the French second division.
Fortunately, the Boks do have other flyhalf options who are performing in top leagues at home and abroad. Willemse continues to impress for the Stormers, and has shown that he can do the job at 10 for the Boks, and veteran Frans Steyn – who started one Test against Argentina last year – was looking good for the Cheetahs before sustaining a knee injury of his own.
Pollard’s injury and the omission of Jantjies forced the Boks to cast the net a bit wider last November – with positive results. Manie Libbok made an immediate impact in the Tests against France, Italy and England, and has continued to impress for the Stormers in major Champions Cup and URC fixtures.
Though he also has room for improvement in the kicking department, Libbok is South Africa’s premier attacking flyhalf and has proved his value to the Bok coaches.
Pollard has won everything there is to win on the international stage, and is a leader within the Bok set-up. While he is fit, he won’t be easily ousted.
At the same time, the rise of Willemse and Libbok will push Pollard to raise his own game. That can only be a good thing for a player who will be hugely important to South Africa’s World Cup ambitions. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.