The ability of Handre Pollard is unquestioned, he has been the anointed heir as South Africa’s 10 for a long time, based on a stellar under-20 career where the flyhalf showcased rare gifts for such a young man across three junior World Championships.
This has had an undoubted flow-on effect at the international level. He is not the finished product nor has he reached his full potential. The ace goal-kicker is just that: a sniper off the tee but not an assassin with ball-in-hand.
His responsibility and role within in the team has to be considered when deciding the world’s best 10, and Pollard’s role is nowhere near as integral to the Springboks as Barrett is to the All Blacks or Sexton is to Ireland.
His ball-playing and playmaking is nearly non-existent, as he takes a back seat to other more established players, playing a distributing role to allow Faf de Klerk to make the decisions and direct play, and Willie le Roux to make the plays on the edge.
In the Springboks game plan, Pollard is a cog but not a vital one.
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Who handles the exit plays? Faf de Klerk with contested box kicks.
Where do the midfield out-of-hand kicks come from? Mainly De Klerk, sometimes Pollard and sometimes Le Roux.
Who dictates play around the field? Faf de Klerk. As a carry-heavy team, the Boks rely on phase play off nine far more than from the flyhalf.
Who takes over the play inside the 22-strike zone? Faf de Klerk.
Who is the set-piece attack built around? Strong first phase carries from Damian de Allende.
The bulk of Springbok tries that flow through the backline are heavily influenced by either Faf de Klerk or Willie le Roux, not Handre Pollard. This is clear in all of the last three All Blacks’ clashes where the team put up 36, 32 and 16 points respectively.
In the first Wellington thriller in 2018, the Springboks’ first try was a combined effort stemming from the work of a number of players.
To begin with, Marx carried from the back of the lineout.
The next three phases were carries off De Klerk the same way to the left, thinning out the right-side All Blacks’ defence.
On the fourth phase with 20-metres of width remaining, De Klerk played out the back to Marx behind a dummy runner, who then gets Le Roux away down the edge. As the designated killer, Le Roux fixes Jordie Barrett and puts Aphiwe Dyantyi in untouched.
Pollard does not touch the ball once. In fact, none of the Springboks tries on that night have the fingerprints of Pollard on them.
It’s more of the same in the Pretoria re-match. Jesse Kriel’s try early in the first half comes after a Wille le Roux linebreak and quick hands the same way through a couple of tight five forwards.
De Allende’s try comes off pure power-running from Siya Kolisi and an offload around the corner to the open midfielder running in support.
The third try to Kolbe in the corner follows almost the exact same pattern as the opening Dyantyi try in Wellington – three phases the same way playing flat off De Klerk following a scrum, before a release to Le Roux on the edge to put the winger in.
In all three tries, Pollard plays as a distributor early on in the play or on the phase before and the try is created by someone else.
To see what happens to the Springboks with just Pollard, look no further than the November tests last year where they lost to England, Wales and just pulled through against Scotland.
Against England at Twickenham, they did not have either De Klerk or Le Roux and managed just 11 points against a side that a few months earlier they beat 2-1 across a three-match series at home, averaging 25 points. When De Klerk and Le Roux were both starting in that series, they went 2-0 and averaged 32.5 points a game with the two playmakers opening up England’s defence.
With key controller Le Roux back in the line-up against Wales in Cardiff, but without their key driver De Klerk, they were outclassed 20-11.
The only Springboks’ try of the night came after eight phases off the scrumhalf before a smart ‘face’ ball from Le Roux found Jesse Kriel open in the corner. Again, there was no handling involved from Pollard in the movement.
A man-of-the-match performance by Pollard at Murrayfield helped South Africa scrape by for a 26-20 win over Scotland, however when using this as weight for the argument of best 10 in the world, you will need more. Scotland are a good team on their day but themselves are not in the conversation as the world’s best. The same goes for Argentina who were dismantled by South Africa in the final round of The Rugby Championship.
In every aspect of the Boks’ game, Pollard isn’t the primary playmaker, game driver or decision-maker. To say he is in the same tier as Beauden Barrett, Owen Farrell or Jonathan Sexton is illogical, thoughtless and just plain wrong.
Does Pollard have the potential to get into the conversation? Yes, he does.
In order to do so, he will need to take over the reins of running the Springboks from de Klerk and le Roux, make the big plays and control the game against the best opposition, which currently he does not do, at least nowhere near to the extent of the others in the conversation.
The Springboks have every chance to win this World Cup and it may be the clutch boot of Pollard that gets them over the line in crucial games. However, kicking the goals is just the icing on top and without the direction of Faf de Klerk or silky ball-handling of Le Roux, it’s hard to see them doing it. Injuries to either of those two would seriously put their campaign in jeopardy, as without both of them on the field, the Springboks haven’t looked as convincing over the last 18 months.
Pollard is a very good player with plenty of untapped potential left, but reserve the talk of being the world’s best 10 until he at least becomes the main guy in his own team, equally responsible for driving his team around the park and making the big plays.
Rugby World Cup memories – Neil Back:
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