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Pollard: 'England are in a good spot... that makes them dangerous'

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Malcolm Couzens/Getty Images)

It’s always the risk with grouped Gallagher Premiership media interviews over Zoom, you can never predict how they will pan out. There are so many variables every time – the technology could be naff, the personality of the interviewee might be dull, or the line of questioning may not be of the standard required to make time fly by rather than stand still.

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None of those three potential pitfalls applied to Handre Pollard on Friday afternoon when Leicester put the 2019 World Cup winner in their rotation ahead of Sunday’s live TV league trip to Gloucester. The wi-fi connection was sweet, the South African was embracing, and a motley crew of five journos did their bit as well with chutzpah, peppering the affable Pollard with 34 wide-ranging questions over a 20-minute period and mining the guts of 2,800 words in quotes. Lovely.

There was plenty about Pollard’s love for Leicester. Plenty too about the playing style of the Premiership, his fitness after his start of October injury, his thoughts on Steve Borthwick’s England, the Six Nations, and also the Springboks ahead of their upcoming World Cup title defence.

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Just as intriguing, he good-humouredly revealed the Leicester delicacy he likes the most, the Tigers’ dressing room character that took him by surprise, the subtle difference between the balls used in the Prem compared to Top 14, the one staff member he swears by, and the up-and-coming youngster he describes as already world-class.

Let’s start with, ‘Why Leicester?’ Having moved to France after the Springboks’ success at the Japanese World Cup, Pollard had signalled a wanderlust. So, when Tigers’ Aled Walters, the ex-SA head of performance, popped along for a chat in November 2021 when South Africa were in London to take on England, one thing quickly led to another as he was soon announced as the signing to replace the Sale-bound George Ford, the No10 he ironically got the better of in the World Cup final in Yokohama.

“He came to visit in November when we played England two years ago, just caught up, and that is when we found out about the situation. To be honest, if Aled wasn’t here I still would have come to Leicester but having him here, it was just a no-brainer… I have always enjoyed the Prem a lot, from watching it back home over the years, and I always just felt it was something I would enjoy because it was so technical, and you have got to outsmart teams because everybody is really good and well-coached.

“We all know in South Africa we have a very physically dominated mindset, we know we want to physically dominate other teams and in England, it is more trying to outsmart with shapes and stuff. It’s something I didn’t do a lot in the past.

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“I always enjoyed it but never got the opportunity to really do it so trying to run the show exactly the way they [Leicester] want, what they really pride themselves on, running lines, all those details, it’s a cool part of the game once you have an understanding and to get an opportunity to do that is nice.

“It does suit me a bit better than an open style of play that it was like in France. I’m enjoying it and at Tigers, we pride ourselves on being tactically good and keeping teams under pressure with our kicking game and that is a part of the game that I really enjoy. It’s all coming together very nicely.”

Tell us more. “As you get older you realise what you can and can’t do physically. Some guys do stuff physically that other people can’t and that is 100 per cent fine. So, it’s accepting that and investing your time on the stuff you know you are good at and trying to become better at that,” continued the 28-year-old about how can become an even better player by being in England.

“Tactically becoming smarter, making better decisions every single time is another thing I enjoy in the Prem because it is such a chess game every single game. It is not just brute force or whereas in the southern hemisphere, it is just speed, speed, speed, and individual brilliance. You have got to outsmart teams here, really break them down phase by phase. That is something I have always enjoyed and is something I wanted to become better at.”

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What about the atmosphere of his current workplace? “It has been unreal. You hear about this place as a person from the outside and honestly, it has just blown me away. It’s unbelievable to play at Welford Road, it is one of my favourite places I have played rugby at. The crowd is unbelievable, and the support is unreal.

“I honestly enjoy every moment and I mostly just feel grateful. It’s a privilege to be a part of a club like this and, as a city and a place with rugby, it is so loved… It’s just the crowd and the whole ambiance as you walk in, you can just feel the history, the tradition, and the people that have been there.

“There are certain places in the world where you get that feeling and Welford Road is one – you can feel the culture, the love for rugby and the support is unbelievable,” he explained, adding where else in the world he has experienced this spine-tingling vibe.

“Growing up in Loftus in Pretoria, it’s a very hostile place for people to come, and then you have got to look at Aviva in Ireland, those kinds of places. Twickenham as well, the history behind it just knowing who has played there before. Millennium as well. You just get that feeling there.”

It was October 1 when Pollard made a short-lived Leicester debut. He had been injured out of The Rugby Championship in Australia in August, the Springboks believing his wonky knee would see him laid up for a while. He mended quicker than envisaged, though, playing just five weeks later only to encounter another knee setback after about 30 minutes’ action at Saracens. It meant 13 further weeks on the sidelines.

“You need a lot of patience. You can get very frustrated easily, especially arriving at a new club wanting to be a part of it and wanting to contribute. Not being able to, it’s very frustrating so being patient is key. Getting to a new club all you want to do is be in the locker room after a game, just contribute and feel part of it. That took a few months.

“Aled and the boys here were brilliant… giving you the necessary time to get back to where you have to be. Aled was one of the main reasons I came to Leicester, knowing that he was going to be here. He knows when to pull back and keep me out of things and when to be hard on me and put me in. It’s so nice to have somebody you can trust around.”

Not for much longer as Walters will join Borthwick’s England in time for the World Cup. What makes the Welsh guru tick? “In terms of the work that you do and the fitness, that is pretty standard. Most guys will have a pretty similar way of thinking about it but Aled’s personality is the thing that makes him what he is and makes him a special S&C guy.

“He knows exactly when to lighten up the mood and exactly when to be extremely hard on us. Sometimes coaches and head coaches can be intense, and he is such a great reader of the room, he knows exactly when to lighten the mood with a joke.

“He’s not always funny but he tries his best. It’s a fine balance but having a guy like him just keeps the group in a really nice place. You never get too intense or too down. He just keeps people exactly where they must be and that is a special art.”

Walters isn’t the only fella capable of lightening the Leicester mood. “Ben Youngs, you’d be surprised. He is a big joker. I didn’t expect that. He’s a good joker, keeping the spirits up and the mood lighter.”

So too Tigers’ recent glut victories. A hat-trick of successes has them back in playoff contention, last month’s Saracens game especially pleasing Pollard, who added that his form is getting better every outing. Nice to hear with the World Cup now only six months away. “That Sarries game was massive. We were under the pump and knew we had to dig deep.

“We came out of the blocks well but that second half when things didn’t go our way, I was proud of the way the guys fought. The second half defensively was just unreal, something special and it made you realise why Leicester did so well last season – it’s the fight that is in this group. That is something you can’t buy. That takes a long time to develop, and it was nice to experience that.

“I’m feeling a lot more comfortable, my body is holding up nicely and getting around the park. Fitness is back so it’s very nice. Getting a few games under my belt consecutively has really helped a lot… It [the form] is getting there, it’s better every week. Little stuff here and there could be better, but I’m on a good upward trajectory and I can just consistently keep on getting better.”

Kicking has been a nurturing factor. Take his observation about the Gilbert ball in use across the Premiership. “It’s the same every week whereas in the Top 14, you play with your club balls. In terms of aesthetics and how it looks, week to week it changes (in France). It sounds simple but the way the ball sits on the tee with different colours, it does affect you so having the same ball every week in the Prem is very nice.”

Then there is the specific type of kicking, particularly precision up-and-unders that teasingly land within inches of the opposition 22. “It’s something growing up in Pretoria and playing in South Africa that you do quite a lot. It’s just a skill you have had to learn over the years and something I really enjoy. It’s a nice variation instead of kicking a box kick off nine.

“It is usually a pretty good counter-attacking opportunity and it opens the field a bit more and has been good for us. Teams are getting so good at escorting and stopping being able to get back box kicks, so it is something we try to do a bit more.”

Two more Tigers topics before switching to Test rugby. Pollard’s favourite Leicester culinary delight? “Mostly curries I would say. The curries are great. It’s nothing specific but I’m trying to get a bit spicier as we go on.”

And what about the versatile Charlie Atkinson, the 21-year-old snapped up as a free agent when Wasps collapsed? “Brilliant. So talented. He has been playing a bit at 15 and 10 and is playing at 12 as well. He is getting experience in different positions now, which as a young player is very important.

“I also went through that as a youngster, just trying to understand every facet of the game a bit better from different perspectives. Every time he has got an opportunity, he has been world-class for us. Really excited to see where he can go. He is still very young and has a lot of time on his hands. It’s exciting for us as a team to have him.”

It was November when Pollard last did some grouped media, pitching up at the Heineken Champions Cup launch at an obscure backwoods hotel somewhere near Heathrow. At the time, Eddie Jones’ future as England boss was the hot topic and Pollard suggested it was too late for the RFU to change head coach and hope for the success that South Africa reaped under Rassie Erasmus when they changed boss 19 months out from the 2019 finals.

What does he think now that Borthwick, his old Leicester boss, is three games into his reign as the new England coach? “I don’t think it is too late, I think what I was trying to say was that it was going to be difficult, and I still think it is going to be difficult. But knowing Steve’s work rate and the people that he is going to have around him going into the World Cup, you have got to look at them and really watch because he is an unbelievable coach and he is going to drive standards.

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“His way of playing is going to take time to get everybody on board – I am sure they are on board, but it takes quite a while to get used to that way of playing and the physical demands of it. But they are in a good spot, they don’t really have a lot of pressure on them, to be honest.

“If it doesn’t work out for them now this season and in the World Cup, they have got another four years to really build on it. That makes them dangerous because they have so much quality in that team player-wise and coaching. They are going to be very dangerous in the World Cup.”

What about the other Six Nations threats to South Africa’s crown, particularly pool opponents Ireland and Scotland? “Ireland are unreal now. They have got unbelievable confidence in their group in what they believe in and how they play. They are doing extremely well.

“Scotland, it’s not a surprise but it is nice to see them really competing well in this Six Nations and doing so well. Scotland is doing an amazing job now, playing a very exciting brand of rugby with Finn Russell pulling the strings. France have not quite hit their stride yet, but I’m sure in the next two weeks they are going to be right up there, so it [the Six Nations] is good quality rugby and I’m loving it, really enjoying watching it.”

The final word goes to the Springboks, have they evolved enough since 2019 to now go and retain the World Cup? “It is going to be very tough. Rugby changes so much and we have definitely got to evolve, and we have been evolving and hopefully we can continue that into the World Cup. It’s an ever-evolving game and you must be sharp and stay on it.

“We have got some big boys. We will never go away from what we believe in but if we can add some nice things on top of that and create some space for the guys outside – it’s unreal how exciting the outside backs are, lots of new guys coming through – it’s a nice blend. So hopefully we can do that.”

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