Pollard to start Tonga dust-up as Boks throw World Cup-winning pivot in at the deep end
Siya Kolisi will captain the Boks for the 50th time while Handré Pollard will make his first Bok appearance in 16 months when the world champions face Tonga in Marseille on Sunday.
For Handré Pollard, a decorated World Cup winner, there was no easing back to duty, because needs must.
Bok coach Jacques Nienaber has selected Pollard to start Sunday’s crucial Rugby World Cup 2023 Pool B dust-up against Tonga after he joined the squad only last week.
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The Boks need to win, score at least four tries for a bonus point and win well in terms of points difference. If they don’t achieve those three things they might be leaving France earlier than anticipated.
Pollard, South Africa’s all-time leading points scorer at rugby world cups with 162, has only recently recovered from a torn calf muscle.
He’s come through 30 minutes of rugby for Leicester and several intense training sessions. He now has to emerge unscathed from the white-hot heat of a battle against Tonga almost 19 weeks after he last played a full match.
It’s not going to be easy. He either comes through and gives Nienaber a reason to ponder his selection in the knockout stages, or he becomes a bit player from here on in. There is no more time for sentiment.
Nienaber needed to give Pollard time in the middle. But he picked a bench with three backs, including Manie Libbok, for this contest. Pollard’s match fitness is slightly unknown and Libbok is insurance.
Pollard will make his first Springbok appearance since playing against Australia in Adelaide in 2022 before injury forced him out of the subsequent 16 Tests.
The clash against Tonga is his second match in 19 weeks since he sustained the calf injury while playing for English club Leicester Tigers in the English Premiership in May. He returned to action last week as a replacement in Leicester’s match against Sale Sharks.
“We went with a five-three [backs and forwards on the bench] split. If you look at Handré, he hasn’t played top-level club rugby since the first weekend in May,” Nienaber said. “I think it’s about 19 weeks ago and in that 19 weeks, he’s only played 30 minutes of club rugby and that was in the Premiership Cup [for Leicester Tigers] the other night.
“There’s a good possibility that he probably would struggle to get through an intense game, a good probability that he might cramp up. That’s why we went with the five-three and have Manie on the bench just for cover.”
Siya Kolisi will captain the Boks for a 50th time, while Pollard is expected to deliver on his reputation.
“What do I expect of him [Pollard]? A realistic performance,” Nienaber said.
“I think that’s where we must all stay in the reality of it. He hasn’t played for the Boks in 13 months — he last played in the last week in August 2022 for the Springboks.
“He hasn’t played top-level rugby since the first week in May, which is 19 weeks ago. In saying that, he’s a quality rugby player and we all know that. He’s won a World Cup before, he’s won a British & Irish Lions series before.
“So he understands what international rugby and top international rugby is about, but I think we must stay real in that and give him time to settle in and get used to the pace of it.”
Naturally, questioning turned to whether Pollard would solve the Boks’ kicking woes from the tee. They missed four out of five against Ireland last week on their way to a 13-8 defeat. Libbok has successfully kicked only three from eight at RWC 2023.
There is an expectation that Pollard will suddenly solve all those problems. Nienaber tried to tone down that hope.
“In the 13 months that Handré wasn’t available for the Springboks, there were 16 Test matches and we won 75% of those,” Nienaber said.
“We lost four, and of the four Test matches we lost, two were against Ireland, who are the number one team in the world and everybody is struggling against them. They haven’t lost a Test match since losing against New Zealand in Auckland [in mid-2022].
“Then we lost to New Zealand in Auckland this year, and the other Test match that we lost … was against France in Marseille where we got the red card. In three of those Test matches it was very close, even this past one [against Ireland], up to the 78th minute there were two points in it.
“Yes, we are not consistent off the tee. But the guys that stepped in, I don’t think they did a bad job.
“In the game against Ireland, we had four opportunities within one metre of their goal line which we butchered. Four. That, for me, is a much bigger issue that we have to sort out. You can’t get yourself within one metre of Ireland’s try line and then you butcher four opportunities.”
While Pollard will be the natural talking point, there are bones to pick over.
Deon Fourie starts at hooker for the first time for the Boks and Marco van Staden is listed as the reserve hooker.
Duane Vermeulen is starting at blindside flank with Jasper Wiese retaining the No 8 berth from last week’s 13-8 loss to Ireland.
It really feels like Wiese is being given one last chance to find his best form, because the Boks struggled at the breakdown against Ireland without the injured Malcolm Marx.
Vermeulen, the next best man after Marx in the breakdown, did not feature against the Irish but will almost certainly be used further down the line if the Boks progress.
Fourie will earn his first start in the Springbok jersey at hooker in a front row with props Ox Nche and Vincent Koch, while Eben Etzebeth and Marvin Orie will support them in the second row.
Koch’s inclusion marks his first start in the green and gold jumper since the RWC pool game against Canada on 8 October 2019 after he was withdrawn from the matchday squad against Romania two weeks ago due to a knee injury he suffered in the warm-up.
The most notable change on Nienaber’s bench was the inclusion of Van Staden at hooker, next to prop replacements Steven Kitshoff and Trevor Nyakane, while the versatile Franco Mostert and Kwagga Smith will complete the forward complement on the bench.
The three backline players on the bench are scrumhalf Jaden Hendrikse, centre Jesse Kriel and Libbok.
In total, 13 players in the match-23 were retained from last week’s 13-8 defeat against Ireland.
“This is a strong and physical team, which is exactly what we need against a side like Tonga that plays with passion and force,” Nienaber said.
“Each one of us understands the importance of this match with an eye on qualifying for the quarterfinal, so accurate execution, physicality and doing our basics right will be vital to get the desired result.”
Nienaber expected a major physical challenge from Tonga: “They will enter with the mindset that they have nothing to lose after going down in their opening two matches of the tournament, so they won’t hold back.
“They had impressive moments in their matches against Scotland and Ireland, so this will require a full 80-minute effort. The emphasis for us will be on doing what we need to do to progress out of the pool stages and to bounce back from last week and build momentum.
“We are still in the World Cup, and we know we have the players and skills to defend our title. We now need to transfer all the hard work at training into producing a top-quality performance,” Nienaber added. DM
15 Willie le Roux, 14 Grant Williams, 13 Canan Moodie, 12 Andre Esterhuizen, 11 Makazole Mapimpi, 10 Handré Pollard, 9 Cobus Reinach, 8 Jasper Wiese, 7 Duane Vermeulen, 6 Siya Kolisi (captain), 5 Marvin Orie, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Vincent Koch, 2 Deon Fourie, 1 Ox Nche
Reserves: 16 Marco van Staden, 17 Steven Kitshoff 18 Trevor Nyakane, 19 Franco Mostert, 20 Kwagga Smith, 21 Jaden Hendrikse, 22 Jesse Kriel, 23 Manie Libbok.